Mind

I Am Hope: Mike King's ride for mental health

"There's so much talk about what the government should be doing, but I Am Hope is about what we can all do," Mike says.

By Sebastian van der Zwan

When Mike King's wife Joanna rediscovered her love of art, it did wonders for her mental health – and now the famous funny man is using one of her passion projects in a bid to save lives.

Comic-turned-campaigner Mike, 55, and a bunch of mates are currently riding from Bluff to Cape Reinga in a convoy of motor scooters for their I Am Hope Tour, which aims to encourage those experiencing hard times to seek help.

And after speaking with schools and community groups throughout the country, he'll auction off their nine vehicles, each painted by well-known local artists like Dick and Otis Frizzell, for his mental health charity Key to Life.

But one of the scooters is more special to Mike than the rest – because it was decorated by Joanna.

The New Zealander of the Year finalist grins, "I thought it was pretty mean, but I don't know anything about art, so I didn't really trust my judgement until a professional painter told me hers was the best of the lot. I'm phenomenally proud."

And what's perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Joanna, 45, has only just resumed making art after more than a decade without even picking up a paintbrush.

She tells, "I'd wanted to pursue art ever since high school, but I had a fear of failure. It was a huge regret of mine. Then last year, my therapist told me that whenever I talked about art, I lit up. He asked me to do a little bit every day and not to worry if it was bad."

Soon, Joanna had set up her own studio in the dining room of the family's South Auckland home and was spending hours churning out creations, with her four-year-old daughter Charlie Sue working on an easel beside her.

When Mike asked if she'd paint one of his I Am Hope scooters, the timing was perfect.

But Joanna recalls, "I was petrified. My heart wanted to do it, but what if it was terrible? Then I remembered what my therapist said, and it was just so natural and fun. I was inspired by Frida Kahlo, who painted from her bed after surviving 35 serious operations. She's a symbol of what we can achieve despite all the crap that happens in our lives."

Joanna also played a crucial role in the I Am Hope bracelets that Mike and his crew are distributing on their tour.

He explains, "Over the years, we've found that 40% of kids will have a suicidal thought before they leave school, but the statistic that's most staggering is that 80% of those kids never ask for help as they're worried about what other people will think or say. They don't know who's safe.

"So we invented a wristband that signifies safety with three little words – I am hope. It's a signal to anyone who's struggling that you can talk to the wearer without fear of being judged or shamed. They won't necessarily fix you, but they'll provide unconditional love and support."

The design of the bracelets was Joanna's brainchild, Mike confesses.

"Being a man, I wanted them to be electric orange or green, but Joanna argued that no-one would wear them. She decided they should be grey and white, so they'd go with both dark and light outfits. She was right, as always!"

Already, Mike and his wife – who both struggled with depression before their romantic Rarotongan wedding in 2015 – have witnessed whole schools donning the bracelets and heard tales of bullies being stopped in their tracks by wearers.

"There's so much talk about what the government should be doing, but I Am Hope is about what we can all do," Mike says. "It's about making it OK for young people like Charlie to ask for help, so little problems don't become big problems, which become suicidal thoughts."

Adorable Charlie – who Joanna calls "Queen of the Kings" – is also a budding artist and proudly shows off a push scooter she decorated while her mum was painting her bike.

Joanna grins, "As a strong-willed, overly intelligent four-year-old, she has a firm idea in her head of what should happen and she has her fair share of meltdowns if we mess with that. She has to let that out."

Mike continues, "More than toys or holidays, the thing kids want most is to know their thoughts are valued by the adults in their lives. The number-one gift we give Charlie is letting her express herself and considering her opinions.

"My eldest child is 31 and parenting was completely different back then. It was all 'do as I tell you', but Jo's taught me that kids are just little people with their own little minds. Just because you're frustrated, you don't have to take it out on your child. It's a new challenge for me, but I'm loving it."

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