This blog covers the 700 miles between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch – the last stop on my travels as a Churchill Fellow. There will be time in the new year for proper reflection on what I’ve learned and what it might mean for youth mentoring practice back home in Scotland. For now, this blog shares some of the emerging points from these latest conversations. Each has touched upon types of transience experienced by children and youth and how consistent, quality mentoring relationships can serve as an anchor amid change.
Julie Moore is the head of research and evaluation at the Graeme Dingle Foundation Originally from Plymouth, Julie has grown evaluation capacity on youth mentoring across five major programmes over 15 years. Few people know more about what’s working for whom, and why. While she brings huge expertise and rigour to the job – for example, explaining the Theory of Change that has been co-designed with programme staff and mentors – she is also clear about the purpose of evaluation. Not to generate insights for their own sake, but to involve many people in improving practices in order to boost outcomes for children.
One of the striking research findings in New Zealand is the lower attainment for children in ‘transient schools’. This isn’t a phrase I’ve really seen in Scotland or the UK. Julie explained – transient refers to having a sizeable share of children who move between communities, and often large distances at short notice. Beyond moves related to parental employment, this may reflect care-giving within extended families. Understanding the Māori tradition of Whānau is helpful here – one definition being how family and place interact in order to maintain cultures, values and stories.
I also heard about transience in south Auckland, affecting mainly Pasifika communities in social housing. When housing and planning decisions combine to force people to move across the city, neighbourhood and school ties are broken and people have to start again. Each of these changes mean formal education, youth work and mentoring support all have to adapt if they are to be effective – requiring consistent and well resourced support as family life changes. This is even more true for children and youth who experience care away from their own family.
One of the most impressive examples of wrapping support around young people having a tough time is Springboard which serves Snells Beach and the Rodney area about an hour north of Auckland. Springboard is building a grassroots youth development culture. General Manager Dan Gray told me “if the community has an itch, we help them to scratch it.” When low level offending started to escalate, Springboard brought together families, schools and the police to craft a positive response. It involved employment and training for over 18s, adult mentoring for young people who may be getting in trouble at school or in the community – or for others, lacking confidence and finding it hard to make friends – and teenage mentors being matched with primary school children.
Springboard’s mission is to show ‘Heart at Work’. Dan and mentoring coordinator Sheralyn were clear-headed about the task involved, telling me that “heart-work is also hard work”. But what is most striking is their commitment to support young people for as long as it takes, especially when they face upheavals in life.
Next was an all too brief stop in Wellington, at the far end of North Island. (Travel tip first: Wellington is a hidden gem. I can’t recommend a trip here highly enough!). I was sorry to be unable to meet Jacinta Krefft, the leading light with Challenge for Change at the city’s Boys and Girls Institute (BGI). Jacinta and her staff were out of the city, but she kindly arranged for me to meet one of the programme’s mentors. Laurna gave up her lunch break to tell me about her mentoring experience.
The programme is distinctive for various reasons including the intensive nature of mentor training (with seven sessions before being matched with a young person), the ‘in at the deep end’ experience of a weekend adventure camp within a few days of being matched and parallel support for parents. Mentors are asked to meet with the young person a couple of times a week for 20 weeks, and to use well-established journal methods to reflect changes. This is a very long way from the 1:1 school based mentoring experience I’m used to, and it was brilliant to get a first hand perspective from someone who is in the middle of her mentoring journey.
Finally to Christchurch on South Island and a meeting with Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS). I sat down with Matt and Eleanor from BBBS Christchurch and Rachel who is national Coordinator with BBBS New Zealand. Core elements of what they do are the same as in the USA and Canada (where I had met BBBS agencies), but it’s always intriguing to hear how practice is adapted to meet local needs.
Two things jumped out from the conversation.
First, the crystal-clear focus on ensuring mentors stay well supported in both community and school based programmes. Their insight that, if mentors stay motivated and understand how they are making a difference, then the young people they are matched with will probably fare well as a result, was expressed with greater confidence than I’ve heard in other places. Part of the proof they are succeeding can be seen in exceptional mentor retention rates over 90%. This looks very promising for mentees, given research evidence pinpointing match length as a key driver of positive outcomes for children. But we can’t be sure yet, so I hope the approach in Christchurch will be evaluated and the findings shared widely.
Second, and returning to the theme of transience in a very different way, the conversation turned to the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. I’m writing this blog from the city’s sparkling new library overlooking the remains of Christchurch Cathedral. The city centre is dominated by shiny new buildings, construction sites and gap sites. If the physical impact of the earthquakes is evident, what about the social and psychological effects? Matt told me that a major and sudden rise in mental distress occurred. No one was prepared – it was always thought that the city didn’t lie in the risk zone. Depopulation happened as well. With some schools, homes and transport links devastated in the east of the city, people had to move across the city for education, work and housing.
BBBS of Christchurch has provided a thoughtful and patient response to upheaval, seeking to attract mentors who live close enough to areas of high need. Mentors who themselves may have experienced trauma. The resilience being shown in everyday relationship building is every bit as valuable well as the ambitious city centre plans to attract people back to meet, live and work. And for the next couple of days I will be a tourist experiencing the run up to Christmas far from home – grateful to Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for this amazing opportunity and grateful to people in Christchurch for the warm welcome in a city still finding its feet.
This travelling blog is made possible with the support of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust @wcmtuk