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Local Focus: Young mothers seek the light at Puawānanga

Set on the grounds of Mākoura College in Masterton Whakaoriori is the teen parent unit, where mums aged 14 to 20 can continue their studies while their children are looked after.

The parenting and life skills students learn are approached with a particular Māori focus and Kaupapa [knowledge, attitudes and values], which is reflected by the unit’s recently being renamed ‘Puawānanga’.

“We consulted with iwi and students and staff and decided they wanted a name that reflected the culture of our unit,” manager Prue Harawira-Smith explains.

“Puawānanga is the name of a native clematis plant that grows rapidly after a period of dormancy in the winter to seek the light, and we liken it to students seeking light and knowledge after the birth of a baby.”

Flowering Puawānanga, photo courtesy Steve Attwood

For Georjia Miller and her baby, Hunter, Puawānanga provides an opportunity for both their futures.

“When I went to my old school, I didn’t finish. And I just think that getting my qualifications is pretty important. I’m trying to do this for my son. I really want to go to university or something and get qualifications so that I can one day be rich,” she says.

Students follow the NCEA curriculum, with the art classes run by teacher Linda Topp particularly popular.

“For some of these students that haven’t been to school a lot, it can show they can do something really well – it’s really good for their wellbeing and any confidence.”

Topp’s work isn’t limited to classroom hours, however.

“They call us up at night to tell us the problems and it’s kind of like being another mother at times,” Topp says.

“Problems like trying to get a house when you’re 18 – if you haven’t got any references, it’s just about impossible.”

Mums and toddlers at end the day at Puawānanga

That’s just one of the challenges faced by teenage mothers. A recent study by the Ministry of Health found that half of teen mums come from the most deprived backgrounds, while another report by Project Gender found single parents face significant stigma and discrimination in their daily lives.

“Often students talk about being looked at negatively or whispered about,” Harawira-Smith says.

“A lot of them feel a huge amount of anxiety and they can withdraw and stay at home”

To help prepare for potential job opportunities, students take regular breaks from the classroom to undertake other activities – such as a recent invitation to plant tree saplings at a local eco-project in Whakaoriori.

On hand to explain the history of the whenua [land] to her old classmates is ex-Puawānanga student Nadia McRae, who works as a part-time conservation officer.

Nadia McRae at Awatotara eco-conservation site

“It’s a sacred place because there was a pā up at the golf course called Kaikokirikiri Pā. We thought we would like to bring the mauri [life source] back to this area, and get biodiversity flourishing again.”

For McRae, becoming pregnant at the age of 16 was a steep learning curve.

“I was embarrassed because of my parents knowing what I had been doing, and I had just thrown everything I’d accomplished away. It was a lot of shame on myself,” she says.

When McRae’s child Giovanna was four months old, she decided she needed to continue her studies.

“I threw my all into the Puawānanga – any opportunity that came up, I’d do it.”

“It’s been a fantastic journey to watch Nadia grow and flourish into this beautiful young woman that’s not afraid to speak her mind and become her very beautiful self,” Harawira-Smith observes.

For any young mum out there thinking of giving up their studies, McRae has some emphatic advice.

“For someone who is finding out they’re about to have a child, you might think it’s just the end of teenagerhood or whatever, but honestly, it’s the beginning. You’re going to learn so much about yourself and the world – just never give up on that.”

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Phil Stebbing
Phil Stebbing
Phil Stebbing is Wairarapa’s Local Focus video journalist. He regularly covers in-depth stories on arts, culture, people, health, and the occasional cat.

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