Author: Koleta Savaii
Today I spent my day out on the field. Yay! I wanted to meet our young people, hang out with them, and see our mentor in action.
Today's sessions were with our school groups. This is an in-school program we deliver for 8 weeks, teaching young people 7 values that contribute to healthy and respectful relationships with family, peers, and the wider community. These values are: Kindness, Attitude, Respect, Integrity, Teamwork, Communication, and Courage.
We got to the first school early to set up and settle down before the young people arrived. I had the opportunity to speak with the School’s Social Worker, who spoke very highly of the program, how well the young people were doing in school since their involvement, and his hope to see the program continue into the next semester, and every year following.
About 5 minutes to the hour, and the young people started arriving. One by one they walked in.
“Good morning miss. Good morning sir”, and gave their mentor the biggest high five.
The session then kicked off with a quick check in – what was your highlight, lowlight, and if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Going around the room…
“My highlight was sleeping in on the weekend. My lowlight was having to get up to do the chores. My superpower would be telekinesis, I want to be able to move things with my thoughts”.
“My highlight was playing Fortnight with my cousin. My lowlight was my mum waking me up early this morning to come to school. My superpower would be invincibility, I want to be super powerful”.
“My highlight was finishing my book that was 260 pages long. My lowlight was beating up this other kid in school. My superpower would be stealth, I want to be super quiet so I can sneak up on people and give them a fright”.
“Wow that’s a long book, what was it about?”, the mentor asked.
“It was about a kid who got given a homework to do, but then he went through all these things before he finally got around to doing his homework”.
“That’s awesome. And tell me, why was beating up that kid your lowlight?”
“I felt bad after I did it. I tried to apologise to him afterwards but he just told me to get lost. And now he won’t even talk to me. So, when I see him I just give him a thumbs up. It’s kinda stink”.
We then moved on to the main activity for the session. Everyone had to share a bit of their past, present or future, which was a continuation from last week’s session where the young people were asked to write their stories on a piece of paper, either as a poem, an essay, or a song – whatever medium they felt comfortable with.
This was the fifth session of this 8-week program, so prior to them sharing their stories, the young people were reminded that the safe space for them to tell their stories has already been created. Importantly, they must show respect. For example, when another person is sharing their story, if they laugh at a funny point, we laugh with them. Never laugh at them.
Again, we went around the room…
“I want to share my future… When I grow up, I want to be the Prime Minister of New Zealand and take over Jacinda Adern’s job. I also want to be a father to two boys”.
Looks like Prime Minister Adern will be around for a very very long time until our young man here is old enough to take over.
“My future… I want to be a builder because you can make a lot of money. My present… My favourite game is Fortnight because I like to play with my cousin. And my past… my nickname that my family used to call me was ‘Fat Boy’ because when I was little, at the age of 3, I was fat and chubby”.
When I was born, I was born into this world to get a good future.
And when I was growing and getting older, there has been lots of changes, like getting new clothes or getting taller.
When I first started school, I felt like crying because I had no idea where I was.
And as I moved to class each year, I got used to it.
And I got to see new faces, also getting smart to some of the teachers.
When I grow up, I’d like to be an accountant or a doctor.
Because I like Maths and I like working with my hands”.
“My future, I’d like to get a good job and make a lot of money. And the only way to get a good job is to get a good education”.
Then, my colleagues shared their own stories…
After everyone had shared, I sat there with tears in my eyes. I looked around the room. Heads lowered, some tears, and sniffles all around. Ah, boys being boys…
It was a beautiful moment. I felt privileged hearing their stories, sad to hear of their struggles, and inspired to do more to make the world a better place for our young people to grow up in.
Our mentor went around the room again, this time asking everyone for one word that described how they felt…
Emotional… Inspired… Motivated…
As an evaluator, these are the moments that are truly worth capturing, but how can we achieve this with our traditional 2-dimensional reporting system? How do we convince Funders of impact, when this impact is often regarded and accepted as some "major life-changing outcome", demonstrated as a statistic?
I wouldn’t know how to quantify such a moment, but it was a moment that no doubt would’ve been the catalyst for change in those young boys lives, if not today, then in some later stage in their lives.
When the young people left for their next class, my colleagues stayed back to reflect on the session they had just delivered.
“How did that make you feel?”
“What did you find challenging?”
“I didn’t think I would be able to share my story given my anxiety, but I overcame it. And I feel relieved”.
“Thank you for sharing your story, I feel privileged to be able to hear it. I tell myself this all the time, if you can change one life with your story, then you have done your job. Some people might be going through the same thing you went through, and your story gives them something and someone to relate to, and empower them to share their own when they’re ready. You also shared with the boys your technique for expressing your emotions, who knows, maybe one of them will start a wordpress account and start blogging, or maybe they’ll start poetry, or art, we don’t know, but it would’ve given them ideas”.
Ah, another beautiful moment! In Evaluation we call this Reflective Practice. This is the stuff that makes an organisation a Learning Organisation. Reflective Practice contributes to an organisation’s growth, agility and sustainability.
On our way back to our car, my colleague showed us a video clip. In the clip, he was showing our other colleague a magic trick using a pack of cards. They each got a pack of cards. They then shuffled the pack and chose one card. They weren’t to reveal the selected card but to write what they chose on a piece of paper. They then swapped packs, and each person reshuffled the cards. When they were ready, they picked out the card they thought the other person chose. After they had decided, they again recorded the card on their piece of paper. Finally, it was time to reveal their hand.
Our other colleague was taken by surprise when he saw that they both correctly guessed the card that the other person chose. But what shocked him more was the fact that he was able to correctly guess the magician’s card!
At that moment, my was brain was sifting through all possible explanations for what I had just witnessed. Like Disciple Thomas said to Jesus, 'Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it' (John 20: 25). I had to try it myself!
My colleague looked at me and said, ‘do you know the best thing anyone has ever told me? After that trick I did last night, R looked at me and said, “do you know what bro, I’m not going to ask you how or why. I’m just going to sit here and appreciate this moment”'.
I also must admit, I have never heard a statement so simple, yet so deep and meaningful.
I wonder how many other life-changing moments that have happened during mentoring sessions that are not captured by weekly and monthly reports but are deeply felt and appreciated by the mentor and their young person. No doubt, plenty.
My highlight? Being a part of today’s little moments, sharing in the experience… even if I cried bucket loads and the boys just did the sniffles.
My lowlight? Knowing that the current medium in which we aim to capture and report on these moments is not adequate. But it is the ‘accepted system’, don’t fight it. Why? Because this is the only way to report outcomes that are accepted as ‘valid’. Oh.
My superpower? I’d like to be able to time travel with each of our stakeholders to all those life-changing moments during mentoring sessions, so that they too can participate in and appreciate their rawness and beauty.
To all our wonderful and generous Funders and supporters: individuals, businesses, organisations, and government ministries –
We may never be able to fully capture and report on each life-changing moment that happens during a mentoring session. But know this, every dollar you’ve donated has touched a young life. And these young people will be our future parents, builders, writers, accountants, poets, and doctors. Isn’t that a future worth investing in?
Author: Koleta Savaii
In the media last week, MOE released its review of the Alternative Education sector. In a nutshell, the review concluded that the alternative education has been “largely ineffective”, with suggestions for “a stronger move to help schools keep the most at-risk teens in mainstream classes”.
‘Keeping at-risk young people in school' is exactly what TYMS have been doing since its inception, and we have seen tremendous successes. The results of our 2016 Evaluations Outcomes Harvest revealed that of our total 183 clients, 73% remained in school, 9% returned to school after being excluded, and 2% transitioned into Alternative Education.
While we are pleased with these results, our insights and key learnings over the many years of working with our young people and their whānau have taught us that the suggestion to ‘keep at risk youth in mainstream classes’ is not as simple as it sounds for all involved.
I had the privilege of catching up with two of my close friends from my undergrad and postgrad tutoring years last Saturday for brunch. Since our tutoring years, one friend is now an Academic and Careers advisor at a South Auckland high school, and the other is a lecturer in one of the University's Certificate Programmes. We reminisced about our tutoring days and the challenges we faced, especially with students who were ill-prepared for university.
My lecturer friend told us that not much has changed, "but do you know what, my students are trying. I've listened to their stories… The challenges they face to get to class are overwhelming". My Careers Advisor friend nodded in agreement, telling us similar stories from her own students and the role she plays in ensuring this gap between High School and University is bridged. It was then my turn to share my work stories, and when I did, it surprised us all that while we are at different stages of the Education system, we all shared the same challenges.
If the issue is not properly addressed in the early years, it continues into high school and eventually into university. Alternatively, young people are excluded from school which is detrimental to their chances at a good life, however this is defined.
So, what exactly is happening at my end of the spectrum?
Young Sione was referred to TYMS last year by his school because he was at high risk of exclusion. The reasons noted in his referral included: a lack of focus, impulsivity, causing class disruption, easily angered, absconding, and poor academic achievement.
Sione is a 15-year-old male of Samoan, Maori, and European descent. Sione lives with his single mother Jane and younger brother Tui. Sione’s grandfather passed away when he was 3 years old, and his loss deeply affected Sione as his papa was his only friend and father-figure. Jane also struggled with her father’s loss, especially as he was her ‘rock’ - her main source of stability both financially and emotionally. With her father gone, Jane was forced to restart on her own. For 10 years they moved from home to home, whatever was affordable with the income she received from her benefit. Sione’s father was not in the picture, so there was no source of parental support from him financially and emotionally to assist with Sione's care.
When I spoke with Jane, she acknowledged with sadness the impact their constant moving had on Sione - his education was disrupted, he was unable to make long-term friends, and the neighbourhoods they lived in were no place to raise a young child.
“But what else can you do when rent is expensive, and when all the bills are paid you are left with an average of $40 per week to allocate to food and other expenses?”, Jane said. “I always prayed that my son didn't get sick because if he did, I wouldn't know how to give him the healthcare he would need”.
Jane also admitted to the many times she would change the name on her power bill just to get by. She also humorously referred to herself as a ‘regular’ at WINZ and Housing NZ.
For Jane, the main priority at the time was to get a Housing NZ home for her and Sione so that Sione could go to one school and make friends.
But Sione was also growing up quickly, and while she was fighting to survive, her son was slowly falling through the cracks. He was disengaged from school and from her. His teachers identified him as a ‘problem student’. And the police often dropped him home after midnight.
When Jane finally found a Housing NZ home, she said “it was already too late, my son was too far gone into the deep end hanging with the wrong crowds and getting into trouble”.
Jane was tearful as she recounted the day she got the call from Housing NZ that they had a home for her. She was sitting at the WINZ reception waiting for another appointment. While she waited, she contemplated the possibility of giving her sons to CYFS care (Tui was 1 year old at the time). In her mind, she had done everything she could but despite all her efforts, her sons were suffering. She did not want that life for them. Perhaps the system could provide her sons with the good life she was unable to provide.
Fortunately for Jane, the call and solution to some of her problems had arrived on time, and she moved with into their new home with her sons within a week.
For Sione on the other hand, his performance at school had deteriorated, which resulted in his involvement with TYMS.
With the help of his TYMS Mentor and TYMS Family Advocate, Sione remained in school and is still there to this day.
Our TYMS team worked with Sione and his mother, building Sione's executive function skills, addressing the risk factors in his environment, and adding the protective factors necessary to strengthen his resilience.
In my conversation with Jane, she expressed immense gratitude for TYMS help with her son, especially his Sai Bhai mentor who, “never gave up" on Sione. Seeing her son’s positive progress every time he returned home from his day with his mentor also empowered Jane to do better for herself and her sons. Jane is now in her last semester of her university degree.
We have all encountered Sione’s in our lives, except the only things we are often told about these Sione’s are the statistics and stereotypes associated with the language he is labelled by: 'problem student’ or ‘at-risk teen’. We are rarely told Sione’s story. We are also not told that young people like Sione who experience four or more risk factors in their lives are highly vulnerable and at high risk of experiencing toxic stress. Toxic stress, amongst its other negative impacts, robs young people of their executive function skills, the very skills that are crucial to young people's academic and social success.
We continue to work with many young Sione’s on an individual basis and in groups. We have an in-school healthy relationships group mentoring programme that directly addresses MOE’s goal of 'keeping at-risk youth in mainstream classes'. This 8-week program is currently running in various primary schools across West Auckland, with schools out South Auckland on the waiting list for next term. We also run an education and pastoral care program in a Youth Justice Residential Home for young on remand. Both programs are gaining nation-wide attention for the positive outcomes experienced by our young people, their whānau, and schools.
What have we learned? Combining the insights from my two friends work experiences with our TYMS learnings from over 5 years of working with young people who are at-risk of being excluded, or are already excluded from schools, we understand the following:
When our young people and their whānau come to TYMS, we first exchange stories to foster the trust and empathy that is needed to establish the relationships that enable us to do the work we do successfully. When we listen to young people's stories, they cease to become ‘just another number’ or ‘another statistic’; instead, they become our child, our young person, our whānau, our neighbour, our people.
Regardless of our job descriptions and where we are in our careers, as adults, we each have a role in the wellbeing and future success of our young people. 'A manuia fanau, e manuia aiga, nuu, Ekalesia, ma le atunuu - When our children are successful, our families, villages, churches, and nation all prosper'.
It takes a village to raise a child.
* Jane and Sione have kindly given their permission for us to tell their story.