Now that the weather is better, Sharnay Cocup is getting back up her mountain; with spade and gumboots and a bunch of kids from the youth group she started when she was just 18.
“We go up Taupiri Mountain two times a week to keep the gorse down,” she says.
About three years ago she formed the Taupiri Youth Group Charitable Trust; now she is about to stand for the Taupiri Community Board.
“I want to be a voice for youth. They tend to fall through the cracks. People say kids go around wrecking things, there’s a reason why they do it. I want the voice of young people in the town to be heard.”
In May Sharnay was ‘blown away’ when she learned she had won Waikato District Council’s Like a Boss category in the inaugural Youth Awards. It was the night before her 21st birthday.
“It was awesome. And everyone sang happy birthday to me as well! On Saturday we had a party in Taupiri Hall – 300 people came – then on Monday I found out I’d been nominated for Volunteering Waikato’s Volunteer of the Year youth award.”
Which she also won in June. “I was anxious and nervous – there are some outstanding people doing amazing things.”
At the ceremony she held tightly on to her nana’s hand. “And would you know it, I heard my name called. It was one of the proudest moments of my life; walking up to that stage thinking about where I came from.”
Born in Huntly, she had a typical teenage life growing up in Taupiri. “Experimenting with things, learning from them. I got to 17 and looked around the village. Most of the kids have grown up together and I was sick and tired of seeing them bored and frustrated.”
Crime in the town had rocketed – “We had a lot of graffiti, we had a lot of robberies, we had a lot of vandalism. We had a lot of bad stuff going on and the residents were blaming our youth.”
While some locals had been caught amongst it, out-of-towners were involved, she says. “They didn’t do it because they wanted to hurt someone, they were bored. ‘So I thought, what can I do?’”
About that time she went to the South Island, and was amazed to see all the facilities available to youth in towns like Gore. “There are cabins open to the public 24-hours. There’s nothing like that in the Waikato. Then it came to me that we’re not trusted.”
Back home, she told a group of kids to grab their gumboots and a spade. “I said we’re going for a walk up Taupiri Mountain.”
But the path was impenetrable, overgrown with gorse. “We stopped and looked at each other and they said ‘look at our mountain. We can’t even get through the entry.’”
The next few weeks were spent clearing the gorse and about this time a change took place amongst her young helpers.
“They were on a mission. Suddenly people started treating them differently, with more respect and we started getting help from the community.”
She then set up the Trust. “The kids are priceless. They’ve done all the work and now have something to call their own. The community comes up and takes part in planting days; everyone is so supportive. ”
It wasn’t just Sharnay who received awards at the Council ceremony. Her group claimed the Champion of the Earth prize, and youth group member Khan Clement-Watkins came third.
“It made them feel they were worthy. They went on for a week, calling themselves champions of the Earth. And I said it lasts the whole year.”
Before the ceremony, she had a word with them about clothes. “They’re farming kids. I said can you please dress up. And they did – the boys in tuxedos with yellow ties, and the girls nice and tidy. I was so proud of them. We went around all the op shops and got the clothes for next to nothing. I told them, we’re from Taupiri. Be proud. The residents from Taupiri were amazed, and the mayor came up and talked to us.”
Later this month Sharnay is attending Festival for the Future in Auckland’s Aotea Centre. Called New Zealand’s most inspiring event, the festival brings together hundreds of young people from throughout the country and provides a platform to develop skills and share ideas.
Sharnay has been sponsored by Number 8 Network to attend the three-day event.
“I’m excited to share what I’ve achieved and hear stories about what others have achieved: the other stories of other youth. It’s just what I need, to be around awesome people and to make connections.
“Although we’re young, we too have a voice that needs to be heard and we also have ideas and creative minds. We hate to be looked at and written off as knowing nothing.”
Her advice to young people is simple. “If you’re feeling down or unworthy, look at what’s in your backyard. If there’s a project you can do, round up some friends and start. If you have a magnificent mountain, use it.”
• Festival for the Future takes place on 23 – 25th September at the Aotea Centre in Auckland. Tickets and more information can be found here