The kids are all right

A group kayak-walking stunt on the Boat Harbour, Dunedin builds confidence. Photo supplied.
A group kayak-walking stunt on the Boat Harbour, Dunedin builds confidence. Photo supplied.
The future is in their hands, so Malcolm Cameron is not giving up on them, Kim Dungey reports.

A 16-year-old youth walks to the front of the room and unfolds a crumpled sheet of paper.

"The best part of this was laser tag. I hope to get into a job. Yeah. Thanks."

•Malcolm Cameron: Unstinting champion of the young

Even now, graduates from the Malcam Trust youth development courses are at pains to appear indifferent. But things have changed.

When they first arrived, many were unable to make eye contact and unwilling to speak in more than one syllable.

Today they not only meet their supervisors' gaze, they have all prepared short speeches.

"My first thoughts of this place were, `Why am I here?'. It wasn't going to be fun," says one.

"But as the weeks went by, I found I was wrong."

"I normally wouldn't be the sort of person to walk 60km or even consider walking 60km, nearly killing myself in the process," says another, of the group's recent four days on the Kepler Track.

A special award for progress goes to a young man who initially asked if he could drink on the premises.

Fiona Gill, manager of the youth development programmes, is disappointed that most have talked their parents out of attending the graduation but Malcolm Cameron, founder of the Malcam Charitable Trust, would probably have done the same at their age: "I'm one of them," he says, looking on. "I really am."

Former graduates Brendan Clifford and Jamie Davidson can also identify with the students. Clifford accumulated more than 30 criminal convictions before starting a programme that he describes as the turning point in his life. For the past 10 months, he has worked full-time as a painter.

Davidson was an overweight teen with a drug habit until doing his course. "It was a huge wake-up call," he says.

Though many of the young people on the courses come from broken homes and violent, dysfunctional families, Gill refuses to label any of them "at risk".

"They're challenging and they have their own issues, for sure. But they're just young people filled with potential that is as yet unrecognised."

Some are directed to the trust by other agencies but most are referred by family and friends or get themselves there.

Staff give them decent food, pay for them to go to the doctor, make sure mental-health issues are addressed. There is virtually no absenteeism.

"What brings them?" Gill says, thinking aloud. "A lack of direction, a lack of motivation, a lack of self-esteem, a wish for something better."

"Half of them won't even talk to us when they first arrive. I tell them, `You have to speak to me because I don't understand grunt language'."

Engaging young people who are hard to reach is about matching them to the right staff member, she says.

"It's all about relationship. You also have to understand youth culture - that there's always more going on than what's presented in front of you".

A common problem is parents who abdicate their roles. One father took a $39 flight to Australia, leaving behind a daughter who had just turned 16.

Others stop parenting when their children reach 12 or 13, instead wanting to be friends.

An important part of the 14-week youth development programmes is helping students understand their personality type and how it affects other people. So, too, is volunteer work.

In Dunedin, they work with the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust, the Sinclair Wetlands and the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.

In Alexandra, it's the Department of Conservation.

In Naseby, they help maintain the luge and landscape around the curling rink.

The final part is recreational challenges that include rock climbing, white-water rafting and a week camping in the Catlins bush.

For some, it is their first time out of Dunedin.

Gill says the students are learning more than how to pitch a tent, make a fire pit and clean up after themselves.

It's about communication, confidence, fitting in with their peer group and stepping out of their comfort zone.

"They learn that 'Joe' who went right through school and came out with a reasonable academic rating is actually more fearful than 'Bob' who grew up on the streets and will give anything a go and they support each other to grow as individuals."

"Fiona doesn't like to use the term, 'disadvantaged youth'," says Pauline King, manager of the social enterprise programmes that give students the skills required to become valuable employees.

"But all youth are disadvantaged these days because we keep them so safe and what we now call 'adventure-based learning' is just what we called games and activities when we were at school ..." she says, adding that such experiences are vital for the success of the community.

"We need these young people to lead their own generation through into the future. And they can't do it without these skills - without empathy, understanding and courage and without having tested themselves.

"It's how we learn."

On one programme, students live together in Central Otago from Monday to Thursday, a move that can help them establish positive bonds in families and end unhealthy peer relationships.

Graduating students also have the opportunity to spend six months doing ground maintenance at Dunedin Botanic Garden.

One of the best things about this paid training scheme is that students' behaviour and everything they do is under public scrutiny, King says.

Their supervisor also gives regular feedback on their performance, something many employers fail to do even when they are about to fire someone.

In six years with the trust, King has seen a pattern among "new workers".

"They start off awfully keen and do quite well. Then after a while they get used to earning the money and forget what they have to do to earn it. They've bought the car and the fancy wheels. They've got the girlfriend. And the weekends are party time.

"Suddenly they can't come to work on the Monday. Then they can't come on the Friday and maybe the Thursday. Eventually they get fired and end up with massive debt ... It all goes to custard in a handbag.

"Our aim is to make them understand that you start at the bottom, you work really hard and you win the right to be promoted through your endeavour.

"It changes the way they look at life because they're raised these days to expect everything will be given to them."

Eighty-two percent of the students move into employment, training or education. Past graduates are mechanics, ministers and managers. Others are doing arts and teaching degrees.

House-painter Brendan Clifford still remembers the first day of his course.

"We had American hotdogs and I thought that was a bit of a luxury 'cos I'd been living in poverty for a while ..." says the 24-year-old.

"[Providing lunch] only seems a small thing but when you're living on less than $200 a week, little things like that help so much."

Clifford had quit his first job at an engineering shop after getting "caught up with a bad crowd".

Work and Income sent him to the Malcam Trust and the positive attitude of the supervisors convinced him he was in the right place: "I knew I had to finish something for the first time in my life to go to the next step and that's exactly what happened."

After the course ended, he worked on a voluntary basis as an assistant supervisor on another of the trust's programmes.

One day, a painter arrived to do a quotation and took him on for work experience.

Twice since then, Clifford has taken unpaid leave to accompany students on the Kepler Track.

For the first time in three years, he is eligible to regain his driver's licence and in the future he would like to work with troubled youngsters at 12 or 13, the age he was when he started to go off the rails.

"If I knew at 12 what I'd [learned] in the last year, I'd already be successful now."

Jamie Davidson was kicked off two Malcam Trust courses for abusing Ritalin and smoking marijuana but says the staff helped him quit drugs and realise what his priorities were.

Working outdoors and walking the Kepler Track were highlights but he would never have considered doing them before.

"I weighed over 150kg and was always sitting indoors. I had a few mates but not [many]. I never used my brain and was extremely lazy."

After finally graduating from his course, Davidson worked six months at the botanic garden and is now assistant tutor for the semiresidential programme in Alexandra.

The 19-year-old who once thought he could do only computer work, now sees a future filled with options, from landscaping and overseas travel to drug counselling and social work.

"The course was a major wake-up call. It helped me find out who I am and helped me to be myself," he says.

"I always used to look down when passing people. Now I feel like an equal."

 

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