Skateboarding crusader wheels into town

Hanging on to his words – Blair Benefield takes his message to Papamoa Primary. Photo: Sharnae Hope.

After all the serious stuff – the chat about confidence, purpose and resilience - the kids cut loose and mobbed Blair Benefield. “It’s humbling mate, it’s humbling.”

About 150 Year 5 and 6 students at Papamoa Primary School gave the skateboarding mental well-being crusader the rock star treatment after he addressed their assembly.

“Not my place to teach them about depression, I don’t want to freak them out,” says Blair, aka Captain RAD, an acronym for ride against depression. “It was more about showing them what a positive outlook can do, setting goals and challenges and inspiring them to have the confidence to meet those challenges. Mental resilience mate – I learned it.”

And many of them responded to his message with high fives, group selfies and then Blair doing a demo run down the middle of the school hall on his skateboard. He says he’s even had to autograph young hands and arms.

“As a mother and a teacher, Blair was fantastic,” says Papamoa Primary teacher Stormie Ivamy. “We teach the value of resilience to our students across the curriculum – resilience when things go bad or wrong, we don’t get down, we bounce right back.”

Blair bounced back after being discharged from the army for severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “I had lost some purpose and pride, I was not emotionally strong and I needed to do something big to give myself purpose.”

Something big involved Blair clambering on his skateboard at Stewart Island and meandering probably close to 2000km up the country to hometown Tauranga. Along the way he spread the word with anyone who would listen – seek help when needed, feeling vulnerable is not a weakness, talking openly about mental health issues is very okay, and the crucial quality that is resilience.

“Mental resilience is something we might not touch on enough with students,” says Stormie. “But we have identified it as a need because a lot more kids have anxiety. And so we want to weave Blair’s message into our philosophy lessons.”

She says she is constantly building the confidence and resilience of her own children and students. “What we say as adults is ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ – it’s really about looking at life’s challenges, what’s important and how we deal with those challenges.”

And to sell those messages successfully to nine and 10-year-olds, pull in a boyish 33-year-old with street style, a “cool, awesome and choice” name like Captain RAD , ponytail, black cap, black hoodie, black skateboard and orange backpack, a magical smile, life stories to tell and an ability to bounce back.

He tells them about his army days, losing a mate in a horrible accident, descending into depression and substance abuse and his road to redemption. They come back with an endless salvo of questions. Did you have to use your gun in the army? What sort of gun? Does your skateboard have brakes? Do you skate at night? And the girls ask what he hopes to achieve? And does he ever went to give up his odyssey?

Blair leaves the kids with the message – “If life gets you down and sad, get RAD.”

After assembly the discussion continues in class. “Lots of questions around depression,” says Stormie. “What is depression? They needed more clarification on that.” The discussion, learning and understanding has begun.

Blair leaves Tauranga on Monday after a fundraiser tomorrow night. He has another three or four months on the road before he reaches Cape Reinga. Then he will be looking for new adventures; new challenges.