Graeme Dingle and Jo-anne Wilkinson’s Graeme Dingle Foundation helps young Kiwis achieve their potential

BY BRITT MANN

SUPPLIED
Graeme Dingle, left, and Jo-anne Wilkinson, husband and wife duo at the helm of the Graeme Dingle Foundation.


 

Graeme Dingle, 70, and Jo-anne Wilkinson, 58, co-founded the Graeme Dingle Foundation in 1995, to help young Kiwis achieve their potential and improve New Zealand’s negative youth statistics. The couple live in Auckland.

GRAEME:
Jo used to come to our house at Waihi Village at the southern end of Lake Taupo on her way to her own bach at Kuratau. So we were friends for about five years. And then one hot summer about 1990 we got to like each other very much. And the rest is history. She was incredibly interesting, sporty, intelligent, good legal brain, and fun.

In the early 70s, I set up the first outdoor pursuit centre in New Zealand. I thought that was my contribution to the youth of New Zealand. And then I went to the corporate world and my boss encouraged me to do something that was good for the country – something else.

So I set out to establish an alternative to prison for kids facing their first custodial sentence. We knew if you put kids in the can at 15, you were buying into several decades of very costly and negative behaviour. I spent two years building this idea – it was called the Journey Centre. And about two weeks before it opened, the minister who had encouraged me to do it became the prime minister and the new minister didn’t want a bar of it. I said if he wouldn’t meet me and talk about it, I’d pull the pin on the thing. If the political will wasn’t there to make it work, it was a dead duck.

I thought, “God I’m tired. I need 40 days in the wilderness.”

I went off to attempt the first continuous circumnavigation of the Arctic. Jo came out and joined me for the last 6000 kilometres. Together we crossed Alaska and the Bering Sea to get back to Siberia. We started talking about what we could do. It was partly sparked by seeing a lot of dysfunction in the Arctic. When we got back to New Zealand, to our utter surprise I guess, we started seeing we had highest rates of youth suicide, highest rates of youth incarceration, and so on.

We said, “Well, let’s try and do something about it”.

Both of us have held almost every position in the organisation but we complement each other perfectly in terms of skills. I tend to be a bit wilder than Jo. I have my outrageous ideas that you know, might work – often work. I hate failing. And I think Jo’s very considered, a bit slower to say, “yeah, let’s get on with it.”

But once she’s committed, she’s totally committed. She’s actually quite an adventurer. When we set off to cross the Bering Sea in our little rubber boat, we got about 15 minutes from the Alaskan coast with still a very long way to go to Siberia.

We suddenly found we had a very big leak in the boat. My natural instinct would have been to get it back to Alaska, get it fixed and then try again. But Jo said, “I have an old pump.” So she just started pumping. That’s how we got across, and we had to get back again, of course. We had an almighty row when we got to Siberia. I probably should have jumped overboard and swum.

JO-ANNE:
I was a partner in a bach at Kuratau on the Western side of Lake Taupo. Graeme lived nearby and was a friend of one of the other partners. Other people in the bach knew that he was a famous mountaineer but I had never heard of him. We met in 1984 and got married in ’99. We were together for nine years before we actually sealed the deal.

He had a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm. For everything. He just loves people generally and it’s a generosity of spirit that shines through with Graeme. He’s a great storyteller, he’s a great entertainer. People are riveted when he starts relaying some of his adventures. He’s a very engaging person to have at a party.

Graeme was doing a circumnavigation of the Arctic near the north. I went to join him for the trek across Alaska and back to Siberia. That was ’92 and ’93. We just kept popping in at little indigenous villages that were incredibly dysfunctional and we just felt incredibly lucky to be New Zealanders, coming from a small, resource-rich, caring country.

And yet, when we got back here, it kind of stared us in the face that our stats were nothing to be proud of around young people. It was hitting us in the face in the media. We decided we couldn’t live in a country that was ignoring all of that.

I trained as a lawyer and I taught the professionals unit for the law degree as well. So I had some skills around competency-based education, and of course Graeme had skills in outdoor activities and working with young people. I stayed working while he did all the research on where was a gap in the market where we could make a significant difference. That was two years in the making, and we came up with the Project K concept. That’s a programme for kids ages 14, 15 with low self-confidence. It’s an intensive 14-month project. We select them from a participating school, and then they go into the outdoors for three weeks, then they come back with a new sense of what’s possible. They’re also paired with a trained adult mentor who helps them set and achieve their goals.

I’m involved in a couple of the committees and am deputy chair and Graeme’s out there fundraising. We both work from home unless we have meetings out.

We’re both keen on outdoor activity, and recognise we both need it otherwise we get tetchy. Winding down is a mix of deliberately not working – calling it quits at a certain time of day and sometimes you have to remind the other one, “I’ve stopped for the day, I can talk about that tomorrow.”

When we were paddling down the Yukon in a lake boat – the wrong sort of boat – Graeme was quite sure we were going to be swamped. When you’re in freezing water, you’re not going to last long. I had the attitude that, I’m very comfortable on the water, and we would have been all right.
 – Sunday Magazine