Listening and hanging out are small acts that make a huge difference for young people facing challenges.
Dietrich Soakai has 15 years’ experience working in youth services, and doesn’t think children are our future leaders… he thinks they’re leaders in their own right, here and now. “I genuinely believe in young people. I believe in their voice and who they are and what they bring.”
From 2016 to 2019, Soakai was the mentoring coordinator for Upside, an Auckland-based agency that matches kids aged nine to 13 who have had adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) with a mentor who spends time with them at least once a week over the course of a year.
About half of the kids have experienced physical abuse. There is also emotional abuse, or a parent with mental illness, and 82% come from single-parent households where it is harder to find the time and resources to help them through a tough time. The time spent with the mentor also gives whānau, parents and caregivers a break.
Soakai says it’s a bit of myth that adults operating in the youth development space need to come from a similar background as the young people they’re helping. “That hasn’t been my experience in recruiting mentors and it definitely hasn’t been my experience in being a youth worker. You just have to be human. I mean that in the most genuine sense.”
Soakai thinks everyone needs a mentor at some point in their lives, and for the young people Upside works with, all that means is someone who values them for who they are, outside the world of school, whānau and social agencies. And all they have to do is hang out, doing whatever activities they feel like (as long as it’s safe, of course). They might kick a ball around, or play video games. Scrapbooking is popular, Soakai says.
“I remember this mentor who asked their young person, ‘Yo, what do you want to get up to today?’ And they said, ‘I want to dress up like fairies and get some cardboard and slide down a hill!’ And so that’s what they did.”
He says it’s not about swooping in “like Superman” and saving anyone.
“There’s this kind of magic that happens, not to make it too woo-woo, with proximity and relationship. When young people are exposed to a different way of living or a different culture or a different socio-economic background, their world expands.
“The role of the mentor is to bear witness to the young person so they feel a sense of attunement. Like, oh my god, there’s this adult that sees me, who’s not trying to fix me or make me into something, they just see me as who I am. Honestly, that has such a positive impact on their lives.”
It’s a two-way street, says Soakai. “Some of [the mentors] are confronted with the realities of what the rangatahi and their whānau are going through. It makes you reflect on your own life, and your values.”
After a mentor signs up, the mentoring coordinator gets in touch to organise the interview process, which includes police checks and character references. “Our young people’s wellbeing and safety is paramount so we want to make sure that the mentors we get on board are legit and there for the right reasons.
“Are they a good fit for the organisation, and is the organisation a good fit for them?” Soakai adds.
Then mentors are invited to to a training day where they are introduced to “the Upside way of mentoring”. This includes health and safety, and situational events and scenarios. “It gives Upside the opportunity to see how they might respond in certain situations.”
Once they complete the training, “it’s a matter of us playing matchmaker and finding the right mentor for the right young person”.
Dr Pat Bullen, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland and co-director of the therapeutic youth mentoring programme Campus Connections Aotearoa, partnered with Upside and Springboard (another programme based in Rodney) to gather data from interviews with mentors, mentees and their whānau.
In 2020, 60 interviews found that 100% of parents and caregivers noticed positive changes in their young person, including more confidence and better communication, and that they had better relationships and friendships.
Bullen says the families overwhelmingly found that the mentor was a “bonus” in their young person’s life.
“It’s not like the mentor replaces family, but it adds to their social ecology. It adds another person that their young person can call on.”
She says that although there are health risks, both physical and psychological, for young people who have experienced trauma, they’re not a pre-determined thing and it’s crucial not to pathologise ACEs.
“It’s not about blaming and saying that they come from a bad family, but it’s really trying to understand and work with them in a way that acknowledges the challenges they face, and remembering that so many of them have such profound strength. Their resilience is humbling, their hopes and dreams, their outlook on who they want to be and what they want to do. They come with incredible intelligence and charisma despite their trauma histories. It speaks to the human condition that we are incredibly resilient.”
Dave Robertson, the co-founder of Upside – which was previously called Brothers in Arms – noted in a recent RNZ interview that there has been a swell of new volunteers since the Covid pandemic began.
Bullen says that because poverty can create a context that makes ACEs more likely, the pandemic may increase the need for such services. “If we think about the current situation with Covid, there are likely to be more families living in poverty or experiencing more extreme poverty than pre-Covid. We’re worried about the impact this is going to have long term.
“I suspect with Covid there’s going to be an increased need in this space, and an increased need for funding.”
She says funding for programmes like these can be limited, and is keen to see increased support from philanthropy. “There is philanthropic funding, and the work I do is currently funded by a philanthropic organisation, but if the economy tanks they may not have the same capacity to give. It is worrying. I would like to see equal funding from government and philanthropy. We’re taking about young people; I guess there is a responsibility there as a society.”
More financial support for mentoring programmes such as Upside, along with increased numbers of volunteers, will give many young people who have faced challenges a better shot at happiness.
“As a mentor you’re there to nurture and help that young person celebrate their strengths and understand what their future can hold for them,” Bullen reaffirms. “It’s about adding to the strengths that are there and amplifying them. And that’s the beauty of it.”