For the first ten years of my life, I lived in a teeny, tiny town called Owaka. It’s in the Catlins area, at the bottom of the South Island. We only had one shop and a petrol station. The day we got a Four Square was very exciting. When I was ten, we moved half an hour north, to a ‘bigger’ small town called Balclutha. It actually had a main street!
I enjoyed my childhood, even though dad spent a lot of time working. He worked as a farm hand and a shearer. Sometimes I got to go with him, which helped ease how much I missed him when he was away. Often he had to leave for months at a time. At home, it was really just me, mum and my brother. If mum was at work, my brother would get me ready for school. A lot of families in my town faced similar challenges. Most people had to travel for ages to get to work.
I was confused. It didn’t help that where I lived, people were ignorant. They had one teacher who taught Maori history and culture, but only Maori students took that class. That didn’t really make sense to me, I thought everyone should be learning it. I tried to do my own research about Maori culture because there came a point where I needed to figure it out for myself. I remember doing a speech at school about setting the facts straight about Maori. I wanted to tell people how Maori got to New Zealand and what really happened after that. I was 14 at the time. My teacher must’ve liked the speech because they asked me to do it again at syndicate finals. I was nervous and scared, but also really excited to be sharing what I’d learnt.
In my last year of school, mum was really unhappy about living in a small town. She wanted to move. Dad didn’t go with her, he had to stay in his job. I decided to take a gap year in Dunedin, I think I was running away from it all. Plus, opportunities in Balclutha were limited. I didn’t want to be a farmer or work at the local freezing works, and there wasn’t much else on offer. My teachers didn’t help much. They told me that the only alternative was to go to university.
We were all hanging out one day and talking about uni. One of the girls said to me, “Amanda, you should do some Maori papers. You’ll pass easily!” I thought I’d give it a go. I discovered that a lot of what I thought I knew about Maori was totally wrong. There was a lot missing in my understanding, things I hadn’t been taught when I was growing up. I felt ripped off. If I had of known when I was younger, I would’ve been more proud of who I was and especially who my mum was.
One day in my Maori class they started advertising a youth leadership position. It was for a Maori camp they ran for high school students. To my surprise, my tutor asked me to go along and be a leader. I’d never worked with youth before! I think, secretly, she knew the camp would benefit me more than the kids I was working with. She was right. It was amazing to be around young people who were so excited and proud to be Maori. They knew who they were and where they came from. I needed that experience, to be shown what it meant to other people. After camp, I joined a Kapa Haka group. I wanted to surround myself with people who shared my culture. I was hooked.
I worked with a little boy called Ryan. He had behavioural issues, ADHD and was pretty full on. At first, I thought they were his problems, I never stopped to think what could be going on at home. One day, one of the teachers told me they were going to put him on Ritalin. I was relieved. I thought, finally, something to calm him down. As soon as he started taking the drug, he wasn’t himself. He wasn’t the same, happy boy anymore. It took a while to get his dosage right. Some days were hard. He would ask me questions, like, “Are you angry at me?” whenever he accidentally soiled his pants. He was so embarrassed, poor kid. It wasn’t his fault.
Eventually, he got put back in his mother’s care. It was a good step forward and he was pretty excited. There were some school holidays were coming up and the teachers wouldn’t let him take his Ritalin home. They were worried that his mum might sell it. I knew Ryan well by that stage. I knew his behaviour had the potential to go through the roof if he went two weeks cold turkey. At the time, I was helping organise a holiday program. It got me thinking, why doesn’t he come along? I asked my boss, but she told me his mum couldn’t afford the fees. My mum and I talked about it, she offered to pay for one week, so I paid for the other. We were good to go.
I made sure to pick Ryan up every day and drop him home afterwards. His mum had just got a new job, but she had no car, so sometimes we would arrive home before her. I couldn’t leave Ryan alone at home on his own. He was too young. He would let me in and make me a cup of tea. Then we’d sit down and play with the toys until his brother got home. One afternoon, I got to meet his mum. She sat down next to me and really opened up. She told me she knew she had a lot to make up for. Before having that experience, I used to point the fingers at parents and think they should know better. I realised it’s not that simple.
Long story short, I worked for another church organisation to help run kid’s program and eventually moved on to working with teenagers. I started getting worn down by the job. My friend, Miele, was working at Te Ora Hou and she rung me to tell me there was a job going as a Youth Worker. She asked me about three or four times to apply for it. Yet again, I wondered if I was good enough. I thought maybe I don’t have what they’re after, why bother? I hate rejection and I’d never had a proper job interview before, either. I was really nervous, but I went in to meet the other youth workers and to have my interview. To my surprise, everything went well. A few days later. I got a call. They gave the job to me!
I’ve been at Te Ora Hou for a year now. I’m a Girls Club Coordinator and Youth Worker. My job entails a whole bunch of stuff and I tend to do a bit of everything. Every day is a challenge. It’s not comfortable, but I like that. I think when you get comfortable you stop growing. I want to make sure I am motivated to work hard. There are a bunch of staff here that have been youth working for a long time. Sometimes I feel like a baby here, but I’m learning one step at a time.
I love working with teenagers and watching them turn their lives around. I spent a lot of my teenage years trying to be someone that I wasn’t. That was time wasted. My brother has two young kids. He tells me I’m so lucky because I can do whatever I want, whenever I like. I could drop everything and go overseas. I can buy whatever I want. But at the end of the day, I can’t take any of that with me. I want to spend as much time with my family as possible. He has children and I think that’s more of a blessing than doing an OE. We place a big importance on whanau at work. After working with young people who don’t have any family support, I value my own even more. I look forward to the day I get married and have my own family.
How do I get into this career?
A lot of youth workers start by volunteering at local community organisations:
- You might like to follow up by emailing or visiting tertiary providers and asking them more about their courses in youth working. Here's a page with all the courses available in New Zealand.
- Another idea is to research local businesses, call them, and ask if you can go in for a day or a week to see what the job is actually like. This will allow you to quickly figure out if this sort of job is for you. This is called 'informational interviewing' and there are some great online resources on how to approach this.