James Wards has gone from cows to computers and now, as chair of the Invercargill-based Insert Coin to Play Charitable Trust, he is dedicated to improving social and educational outcomes for rangatahi by giving them the opportunity to participate in a wide range of e-sports and digital technologies.

“I was a high school dropout at 17 and I ended up milking cows for seven years. When I lost two of my friends to suicide, I decided I wanted to do something to address the sense of isolation and hardship that many young people face,” James says.

James established the Insert Coin to Play Trust in 2022, building on an initiative that started in Invercargill in 2017, and along with his fellow trustees, Marcin Lipski and Jesse Hall, he has worked hard to deliver a wide range of digital events around Southland and the wider South Island, aimed at rangatahi aged 8 to 18 plus.

Covid-19 response funding from Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu has meant the team has been able to provide free monthly events in Bluff for a year and James is excited about the response so far.

“Funding has enabled us to acquire equipment and expertise for staging events in Bluff and by a landslide, we’re one of the most popular activities for kids there.”

Insert Coin to Play regularly supports video game events and James is a strong advocate for the benefits they offer young people.

“These digital and e-sport events not only provide young people with an opportunity to engage and interact socially, they also help develop a sense of community around a shared passion and they give kids and parents a much better understanding of gaming events and the range of future employment opportunities available in our digital-technological world.”

The team works closely with parents and rangatahi to educate everyone about technological opportunities and any associated risks that come with online activities.

“There’s a huge demand for what we’re offering and for young people considering a future career in the technology realm, our events are a great starting place. Along with all the basics, we also offer educational opportunities for building your own computer, learning operating systems and software packages, computer networking and robotics. And all of this in a safe environment that stresses healthy practices like moderation, positive lifestyle choices, diet and exercise.”

The group is also active in youth mentoring and is actively involved with government organisations like Oranga Tamariki and the Open Home Foundation, to provide a modern approach to youth mentoring for children interested in digital technology.

“We have a mental health crisis in this country and our initiative is aimed at reducing feelings of social isolation for young people by providing them with opportunities to connect and network with others.

“Kids want to play video games and we’re providing them a safe context to explore those interests. Our events are all age-specific, they’re free and a powerful tool for teaching kids about cooperation, communication, problem-solving and working together as a team.

“We’re not encouraging kids to go into a dark room and play video games for hours behind a closed door. We’re encouraging them to open up and take part in something they love in a safe and healthy environment.

“Our approach is unique. We’re taking what many people claim is the problem and we’re using it as a solution. And we’ve lost count of the number of young people who have taken part in our events.

“It all comes down to free accessibility for everyone and we’re very proud of the safe space we provide for everyone.”