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When they push us away – We Stay!

When I sent in a job enquiry to Pride Lands, I wasn’t entirely sure what it was that they did. I had recently returned from a period of travel in the South Island, and had started a construction job directly adjacent to Pride Land’s SWIS centre in Berhampore. As I went about my labour duties, I noticed that the cars rolling in next door were tagged with ‘Youth Mentors’, ‘After-school care specialists’, and ‘Holiday programmes’, as well as being branded with a giant lion logo. I was intrigued, and quite envious of the staff members who I would see engaging with the children, and sporting their orange Pride jerseys. They always seemed to have a smile on their faces. I thought to myself, well that’s the type of work I’d much prefer to be doing!

At the time, I was accepting that soon I might leave New Zealand. Already having been in the country for over two years, I had fulfilled the majority of my ambitions. I had loved my time here, but I had always struggled to shrug off this tag of being a ‘backpacker’. I was quite fed up with construction roles and mandatory fruit picking, and felt that I could be of much more use doing something else. Fast forward a couple of months and I can call myself a youth mentor. I now drive around in one of those lion branded cars, I wear the orange Pride jersey, and I definitely have a smile on my face.

It is worth noting that I do have a great deal of experience working with children. I started coaching soccer at my local club when I was just sixteen, and would continue this for several years working with kids of all ages. I also worked at an outdoor activity centre where we would cater for large school groups and partake in kayaking, orienteering, obstacle courses, mud-runs, team building and much more!

If I didn’t know exactly what Pride Lands was when first asking for a job, I would quickly find out. We are youth mentors, we teach confidence and respect, and no child gets left behind. My first week mentoring was somewhat overwhelming, but in a sink or swim scenario, I decided to kick my legs and do a bit of a doggy paddle. I was introduced to young Blake*, a bright eyed and very switched on eight-year-old. I’m not privy to his back story, I was told all I needed to know to be able to carry out my duties, whilst remaining impartial. Blake would be in my care Monday to Friday before attending our after-school programme in the evening time.

Blake and I had some difficult days in our first few weeks. I was often unable to get him to follow instructions, some mornings he even refused to get in the car with me. His behaviour was often unpredictable and opportunistic, which made me quite anxious especially when we were out in busy settings. On several occasions Blake tried to run off on me and there have been times when I’ve had to restrain him because he was putting himself or others in harm’s way. What was most frustrating was that he would never tell me what was bothering him. He would completely shut me out and was uncomfortable expressing himself or perhaps didn’t have the tools to do so. He would react in anger or by trying to escape the situation. In just a few months however his attitude and behaviour towards me and others has drastically improved. It’s worth taking a close look at how we’ve progressed to this stage. There is no ‘one glove fits all’ approach when dealing with children. Each case is different, and any plan will need to be constantly adjusted.

Consistency is key. Children are often let down by systems, agencies, and schools, but Pride Lands will always be there for them. We always show up. Blake soon began to realise that I was going nowhere. No matter how badly he behaved, I will still be there the next morning with a positive attitude.

We made some adjustments to Blake’s environment and this played a major role in his behavioural change. Initially, Blake and I would spend the majority of our time out and about exploring and doing activities all over Wellington. We soon realised however that open spaces and busy settings didn’t suit Blake, and that in these situations I had less control. There was too much distraction and Blake had endless opportunities for misbehaviour. We now spend the majority of our time at our head office where it is quiet and calm. It is a safe space where he can do studies and play games.

Blake’s days are much more structured now and he has really benefitted from this. We have a daily routine and he understands that there is a ‘work for reward’ system in place. We do school work in short block periods and if his effort is up to standard then he earns free time to do what he feels like doing. Blake hasn’t been in school for quite a while but he responded well to the introduction of school work into his day.

Discipline is another area where Blake has greatly improved and all credit to him. He began to realise that his actions had consequences and that we would not let him off the hook. If his behaviour deteriorates then his privileges get taken away from him. For example, I may not allow him to sit in the front seat of the car or I may take away all technology. Good discipline also reaps positive rewards though, it works both ways. At Pride Lands, mistakes can always be remedied, as long as one owns up to them and shows remorse.

Blake’s ability to handle difficult situations has greatly improved during his time at Pride Lands. What we worked hard on was his ability to communicate feelings and emotions. This was something that was always going to take time to improve, as obviously it is important, he feels comfortable enough to talk to me. Blake still gets upset, but he is much more expressive and more capable of using words to explain what is going on. He will often ask me now if he can take a small break or if he can go outside and get some fresh air.

Working at Pride Lands is as challenging as it is rewarding. I am lucky to be able to draw on the experience of my work colleagues whenever I am in need of advice, and that I am part of such a great work culture. Blake and I will continue to spend time together, working towards getting him back to school. I have no doubt that this will happen soon, and I am very proud of the progress he has made.

I am proud to say that when I go to work at Pride Lands, I make a difference in the lives of young people while being happy and earning a good living at the same time. I am proud to be a Pride Lands youth mentor because what we do really makes a difference.

Thank you.

Stephen O’Shea

*Name changed for privacy reasons