Why this battling Nambour teen has a new lease on life
A NAMBOUR mechanic and an autistic teenage boy who'd been "disengaged and bullied" in high school have formed a unique bond.
The unlikely pair struck up a friendship six months ago through finding common ground in their love of cars.
Zac Stepney, 14, had struggled for years growing up with a hard-working single mum and sister who didn't share the same passion.
But through Sunshine Coast charity Connect, he has been given a new lease on life.
Earlier this week he was also given the thrill of a lifetime, taken up for a joyride through Sunshine Coast skies.
Once or twice a week, auto-electrician Darren Clark mentors Zac through the mental health program Connect.
The duo has slowly but surely grown closer.
While Zac began "stand-offish" they now just "two mates hanging out".
"I was told not to have any expectations and at first it took a few goes. But we found out we both loved cars," Mr Clark said.
"He's just a normal kid who has become a mate.
Three weeks into the program, the pair started work to painstakingly restore a HT Monaro.
Zac was hooked immediately.
"He shows so much enthusiasm," Mr Clark said.
"I am so impressed with how hands-on he is.
"He just knows through his thinking of how to fix it.
"He is very mechanically minded and a natural.
"Basically I have got an apprentice out of it.
"If we aren't fixing cars we just go kick the footy down at the beach or go to car shows together."
Zac's mum Kay naturally had concerns about the program at first, which were quickly put to rest.
She said the change had been remarkable.
"Connect really takes care to pick the right mentor for the right child," she said.
"They have to be on the same page and build up a relationship.
"He was becoming quite isolated, disengaged and was bullied at school.
"The whole idea of Connect is fantastic, it's just been wonderful. Zac has such a better outlook now."
But the program desperately needs help to fulfil its potential.
Since launching in November last year, it's paired up 20 children with mentors - but far off its goal of 250.
Coast father and man behind Connect Gordon Barratt is frustrated at the lack of government support.
He said with a minimum $100,000 injection, 250 kids could be put through the program in 12 months.
"At the moment we are running week-to-week," Mr Barratt said.
"The lack of government support has been a bit pathetic.
"The community support though, has been fantastic. We're really engaged with schools well."
Mr Barratt, who mentors a boy and girl with his wife, knows first-hand how influential the program can be - on the children and adults alike.
"They are our kids now," he said.
"The transition has been amazing and so extraordinarily rewarding personally.
"I miss the kids if I don't see them on a weekend."
For Zac, the future is bright. His eye for fixing and skill with tools in hand make him a natural fit in the world of engines.
Mr Clark, who works designing camping equipment, will soon take Zac under his wing a step further.
"I've asked my company and they're happy for him to do work experience with us," he said.
"I showed him some of the work and his eyes just lit up like dinner plates.
"Once we get things finalised he will start a traineeship with us."
Mr Barratt expressed the need for mentors through his program and that if anyone thinks they can help, should try.
Anyone interested can phone 1800 367 543 or visit the website connectkids.com.au.