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Hope, connection and possibility

Future Leaders youth coach Tara Robinson, with students Kehu [left] and Jaye at King Street Artworks. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

Tutoring sessions in a safe environment, social groups for neurodiverse students, a new boxing club, experimenting with clay sculptures, and caring for rescued heritage horses.

These are just a handful of new strategies to help Wairarapa rangatahi [young people] re-connect with their education and community, plan their future, and realise their potential amid the chaos of covid-19.

Last year, the Ministry for Youth Development [MYD] introduced its Ākonga Pathway Programme, a covid-19 response initiative to support ākonga [students] whose learning has been impacted by the pandemic – and who are at risk of disengaging from education, or have left school with no pathway into training or employment.

The programme, part of MYD’s youth mentorship strategy Future Leaders, was first rolled out in Wellington and Waikato, and was expanded to include Wairarapa in February 2022.

Ākonga referred for the programme receive weekly individual mentoring sessions to help them identify and pursue their future goals, develop life skills, build community connections and, eventually, transition into paid employment or work-based learning.

Sessions can also involve academic and mental health support – to help young people work through the challenges holding them back at school.

In Wairarapa, the programme is facilitated by youth coach Tara Robinson, working with a cohort of 30 students from various secondary schools.

Charlotte, a student mentored by the programme, is doing volunteer work for a farmer, caring for her Kaimanawa horses.

Nationally, covid-19 has had significant repercussions for secondary ākonga: with young people struggling to adjust to remote learning, disrupted by staffing shortages, and having to navigate strained family dynamics at home.

Wairarapa, Robinson said, is no exception – with covid severely affecting their mental health, several of her students have reported truanting and substance abuse.

However, thanks to the Ākonga Pathway Programme, her young charges are turning a corner: improving, grades, applying for jobs, doing volunteer work, and tapping into creative passions.

Robinson said the fall-out from the pandemic had left her students feeling despondent about their future prospects – but working on their goals in a safe and supportive one-to-one environment has given them “the motivation and accountability to find a way forward”.

“You get so excited when you see their successes,” she said.

“They’ve had some revolutionary moments: even small things, like their school assignments making sense, realising they actually do want to do a [university] course, and getting out of the house and showing up to school. Which, when you’re struggling, is a huge achievement.

“It’s a relief for them to know there are possibilities within their grasp. They know there are people here to help them get to where they want to be and, after everything they’ve been through, that there’s hope for them.”

Robinson, who has a background in sociology and prisoner education, works with students aged 14 and 21 – usually referred to the Ākonga Pathway Programme by schools, parents, or mental health services.

Robinson said covid has been hugely challenging for Wairarapa rangatahi – particularly for those who don’t have access to the technology for online learning or have inadequate internet speed or cellular reception.

Others have had to contend with family pressures – such as changes to a parent’s employment – and domestic abuse issues resurfacing during lockdowns.

Neurodiverse ākonga and those with additional learning needs have been particularly impacted – often unable to access learning support at home and struggling to adapt to the rapidly shifting covid environment.

To cope with rising anxiety, many of Robinson’s students have resorted to “self-medicating”.

“Drug use is a huge issue – and it’s affecting kids younger and younger,” Robinson said.

“I’ve got a lot of students telling me, ‘I’ve got bad anxiety, and I just don’t want to deal with it.’

“It gets to the point where they don’t want to go to school – which leaves them feeling more disconnected.”

Despite them contending with many challenges, Robinson is thrilled with her students’ progress over the past two terms.

Attendance and student-teacher relationships have improved, previously failed NCEA standards have been resubmitted, and several students have gained work experience and volunteer placements – including with a carpentry business and the Salvation Army Family Store in Carterton.

Ākonga are also pursuing creative endeavours, such as attending King Street Artworks, signing up to dance classes, and joining theatre groups.

Robinson is working with the Wairarapa Boxing Academy to set up a dedicated girls’ boxing club – for students to find a positive outlet for their emotions.

“Some of the girls have a lot of anger issues. We want to help them express that in a healthy way – so they don’t get into fights and get kicked out of school.”

One particular success story is Charlotte – a young woman passionate about all things equestrian, whom Robinson was able to connect with a Carterton farmer who rescued three Kaimanawa horses.

Charlotte now makes regular trips to Carterton to help care for the horses, which she “absolutely loves”.

Robinson said the programme can also cater to students’ access needs: such as funding learning support devices, transport to and from activities, and supporting students to get their driver’s licences by paying for lessons and testing fees.

“Plus, we can do things like take the kids out for lunch and have pampering sessions at the end of term.

“We also put together care packages for kids recovering from covid – things like blankets, tissues, Panadol, and snacks.”

Robinson said one of the most gratifying parts of her work is seeing ākonga gain confidence during their tutoring sessions – with the one-to-one environment a welcome respite from the stress of a classroom.

“I’ll get a text saying, ‘I’m having a bad day, can I see you period 3?’ And we can just chill out together, go over some homework, and chat about what’s on their mind.

“They know they’re in a safe place, where there’s no judgement.”

  • The Ākonga Pathway Programme in Wairarapa is keen to partner with businesses interested in providing work experience opportunities for students.
  • For more information, contact Tara Robinson at [email protected].

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