Reaching for the summit

 
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The stunningly beautiful and sometimes deadly Aoraki Mt Cook is a metaphor for education. Young people and their whānau (family) are told they must all climb a mountain and reach the top. However, they don’t have the appropriate gear—the tents, backpacks, tramping shoes and food, wet weather gear and a satellite phone—to embark on this perilous and exciting trek, nor do they have the funds to purchase them. These whānau live in despair. Most do not reach the top; they give up somewhere on that mountain.

They need guides to support their journey up the mountain, pointing out shortcuts, resting places and the picturesque views. They need a cheerleading team to celebrate their successes, not only if they reach the top, but along the way. In my work at Te Aroha Noa Community Services in Highbury, Palmerston North, New Zealand, I’m privileged to be one of these cheerleaders. Let me introduce you to three rangatahi (youth) on that mountain.

Sarah* regularly attends the young parent learning hub at Te Aroha Noa. Sarah’s whānau was battling a toxic environment of deep trauma, family violence, financial stress, addictions and a range of anti-social behaviours. The family breakdown, anger and substance abuse had her at breaking point when she first connected with Te Aroha Noa at the age of 12. Sarah and her whānau felt unable to break free from the generational cycles of disadvantage, anger and hopelessness ingrained in their life of poverty.

Hemi* has a tough exterior; he’s been hardened by a life filled with anger, lacking trust and aroha(love). Hemi is 16 and lives with his older brother’s family. At 14, Hemi joined Te Aroha Noa’s program for youth who have disengaged from mainstream education. He was aggressive and held no hopes or dreams for himself. He rarely laughed. His life had been traumatic—surrounded by disappointment, whānau violence and substance abuse. Hemi did not know his father and his mother is an alcoholic. Hemi’s journey had been one of rebellion, challenging authority and deep feelings of inadequacy. He was excluded from mainstream school and alternative education. He lacked impulse control and had little interest in meaningful learning pathways or what that even meant.

Taylor* is 13 with three younger siblings. She has spent her young life living between her mother’s house and the homes of extended family members. Behind her beautiful smile and innocent appearance is the grief of a child. Taylor’s father died when she was young. Although Taylor and her mother have a volatile and toxic relationship, 18 months earlier she ran away from where she was living to return to her mother and siblings. She now attends Te Aroha Noa to meet the government’s educational requirements. Taylor and her whānau experience intergenerational breakdown, system dependence, violence, the complexities of mental health, shared alcohol and drug dependence as well as strong gang affiliation. Her whānau lives in hand-to-mouth survival mode. Taylor’s educational journey includes gaps in attendance and engagement. Her reading and comprehension age is well below that of her peers. When we do morning van pick-ups at Taylor’s house, we begin to notice her younger siblings around—they should be attending school. Their reason for remaining home? “We don’t have food.”

These three rangatahi have similar stories. They share the deep wounds of intergenerational violence and addiction, as well as dysfunction.

They have little or no skills to contribute in their community. They are poorly educated. Their education stories are disrupted with less than 50 per cent school attendance due to whānausickness, caring for younger siblings, no school lunch and complex learning needs, leading to anti-social behaviour that resulted in them being excluded from both mainstream and alternative education. These whānau have little pride for their community and little self-value. Each young person and their whānau has some level of involvement in the youth justice and child welfare systems.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I believe every young person should have a meaningful learning pathway, one that will empower them for the journey of life. I know this will change our world. That journey, that mountain, is not always easy for many of our young people in New Zealand. There are a range of barriers that restrict their engagement and success while my own children, who lack most of the barriers Sarah, Hemi and Taylor experience, are thriving. They are climbing the mountain with ease, learning when to pause and have a snack, changing their tramping socks when they are wet, and engaging with the wisdom of the guides and support teams along the way.

The disparity within our youth educational success is heartbreaking. NZ government statistics show that “in 2016 . . . suspension and exclusion rates increased . . . schools continue to stand-down, suspend, and exclude more Māori students than any other ethnic group . . .” The numbers highlight the inadequacy and inequality for many of our youth in the education system. There must be change. Our young people need love to grow and the right environment to thrive, yet they are taken off the mountain or turn back before they ever reach the top. So what is being done for our youth, our communities and our future?

Innovative organisations and initiatives around New Zealand are addressing the needs and inadequacy of the persistently disadvantaged underclass. Te Aroha Noa Community Services is a beautiful example of a whānau-led community of change. Two youth programs were developed as a response to growing needs of at-risk youth in the community: a youth program for 13–16-year-old young people who have disengaged from mainstream education and a young parent learning hub for 15–21-year-old parents wanting to engage in education, parenting and life skills training. Both programs run from a team approach with an educator, social workers, early child- hood teachers and counsellors, each prepared to speak up, stand in the gap and provide meaningful learning experiences. The literal translation of Te Aroha Noa, “unconditional love,” has become a beacon of hope in the community. Born out of an intentional movement in practical Christianity, Te Aroha Noa is an environment where staff, clients and community members are invited into a space of transformation. The individuals and teams journeying with these young people and young parents are the hope-holders and cheerleading teams these youth so desperately need as they climb the mountain. They have not experienced what it is like to have people hang in, regardless of the frustration, pain and darkness. I believe Te Aroha Noa is a safe place of belonging, undertaking ground-breaking work in re-engaging these youth and their whānau.

Te Aroha Noa, and other similar organisations, distribute the wet-weather gear when the storms come. They have snacks in their backpacks as they climb the mountain together with these youth and their families; encouraging, listening and support- ing them as they climb through difficult terrain and face exhaustion.

Sarah is now a mother who has encouraged four other young mums with similar stories to join the young parent learning hub. She has been empowered through her own experience and now sees herself as a hope-holder and change-maker for her own whānau and community.

Hemi recently completed an industry-recognised hospitality course. He now has little or no engagement with the police and has a dream of joining the army.

Taylor and her mother are navigating their relationship with support and are excited about what the next few months hold. Those who have journeyed with Te Aroha Noa find themselves supporting, loving and affirming their own family and friends. You cannot be changed without deeply desiring the same for others. These young people have grown through their own experience of unconditional love and whole-per- son learning, setting their eyes on the top, accepting support and climbing the mountain.

There is both great hope and room for growth in our education system. There are schools, initiatives and teachers who are passionate about breaking the status quo and doing learning in new ways. These leaders are change-makers; they confront the injustice with big hearts and they dream big. They become the hands and feet of Jesus in practical relationships, extending unconditional love to all they come in contact with.

It is these glimmers of hope that reveal a different way of learning: one that addresses the health, wellness and heart of the individual.

Learning where unconditional love is at the centre says, “I am here for the whole climb up the mountain. I will be there when it is hard and you want to turn back. I will be your cheerleader.”

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,” Aristotle wrote. The education system is not perfect, yet each young person represents what is possible. It takes courage to be a change-maker, to put the young person and their family at the centre. It takes courage to adapt learning and extend love to create meaningful and lasting heart and life change for each individual. It takes courage to make the journey up the mountain, supporting others along the way and experiencing the joy of reaching the top after a long, hard climb.


* All names changed to protect identity.