Amanda - Youth Worker / Kaimahi Taiohi

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!

My parents moved down from the North Island while mum was pregnant with my brother. They lived in the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse, they only owned one car. Dad had to drive to work every morning, so mum had no choice but to stay at home. She used to bake the most amazing bread and sell it through the local shop. When we got a bit older, she started training to be a shearer. She started by rousing sheep, then later on became a wool classer. Mum was very driven. When she started something, she worked her way right up to the top.

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.

There were only two other Maori families in Balclutha. All my friends were white and all their parents were white. Mum is Maori and she’s always been a lot darker than I am. Dad is pakeha, so I look like a mix between them. I remember being embarrassed when mum picked me up from school, I didn’t want my friends to see how dark she was. I had so many misconceptions about what it meant to be Maori. I never knew how to talk to mum about it, either.

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.

A year later, dad moved to Christchurch and I went with him. It was a big change, from small town to big city. Luckily, I quickly made a good friend, Aroha. She was Maori, too. We decided to go flatting together, so we found a house and another flatmate who was Samoan. He was the first Samoan I’d ever met! For the first time, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. Aroha had heaps of friends who were Maori and they used to come over and hang out. Before I knew it, they adopted me into their group. It was awesome.

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.

It wasn’t long before I came to the end of my degree. I graduated with a bachelor of arts, majoring in in human services and Maori studies. All the learning had been great, but I wasn’t sure how to apply it. I knew I needed to get a job and I didn’t want my student loan to get any bigger. My friend, Melie, who I went to church with, told me about a teaching aid position at a primary school. The deputy principal was her boyfriend’s aunty. Automatically, I thought they wouldn’t hire me. If she saw my ta moko - my Maori tattoo on my wrist - I thought that’d be it, game over. I went in to meet her, not knowing what to expect. To my surprise, we hit it off and she gave me the job the same day.

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.

After a few months, Ryan started to trust me. He told me about his home life. His grandmother looked after him, but his siblings didn’t live with them. He was only seven years old. All he really wanted was his mum. She couldn’t look after him at the time as she was hooked on drugs. I definitely judged her, initially. I couldn’t understand how she could do that to Ryan, let alone herself.

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.

I worked alongside Ryan for another year until his behaviour had improved so much that I was no longer needed. I was really, really happy for him. Sometimes I take my youth group girls down to the fish and chip shop and we have a picnic at the park. One day he was there with his mum, playing in the playground. Ryan came up to me and gave me a big cuddle. They both kept saying, “Thank you, thank you.” She seemed like she was doing well, three years in the job.

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.

There aren’t enough women working here. A lot of people think there would be heaps of females because of the type of work we do. It fits into that cliche idea of women being more caring. Partly because we are a Christian organisation, a lot of people get married really young, have kids and leave the job. They might have a huge heart for the work, but they’re only here a couple of years. The men are able to keep working and, to be honest, I find that really hard. There are a lot of young girls that need mentoring and sometimes we have to turn them away. There’s just not enough specialist support.

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:

- Try the Careers NZ website, the link will take you straight to more information about being a youth worker. Their 'How to enter the job' section has a lot of really good info.

- 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.