Written by Hope Burmeister, journalism student, Massey University Wellington
“Once you’re in Challenge 2000, you’re in it for life. You’re automatically part of the whānau,” three young youth workers say.
Challenge 2000 is a youth development agency that works mainly in the Wellington region, working for social change and supporting the vulnerable. It’s been running for 30 years, providing a wide range of services and programmes to children, young people, families, schools and community groups.
As well as responding to the needs of the community, the organisation also delivers programmes that challenge the advantaged and that promote social justice and responsibility.
One of the programmes it runs is a gap year, which involves NZQA youth work training, work placements, experiences, and local and possibly international travel. The programme gives young people the opportunity to serve and be an active part of the community. It helps them develop resilience and leadership skills, widens their aspirations and gives them opportunities to grow.
So far, more than 80 young people, from a wide range of backgrounds, have graduated from the programme.
Kitty McKinley, the founder of Challenge 2000, believes that everybody has something to give, even young people who have had hard upbringings.
“We need to give opportunities for people to give,” she said. “Everybody has something to give, but sometimes it’s hard for them to see it, if they feel bad about themselves.”
After finishing her gap year with Challenge, Piki Boyles, 21, began her degree at Massey University in Palmerston North, but before long she started suffering depression.
A few of the youth workers at Challenge reached out and asked if she was okay, and if she needed to come ‘home’.
“I was not in a good way [and] I was pretty sick,” Piki says. “Without their intervention, I would still be out there, struggling. That goes to show what Challenge is like, and its heart,” she says.
Now a youth worker for the organisation, Piki facilitates programmes and works one on one with students at a local secondary school. She hasn’t experienced everything these young people have been through, but can often see her young self in them.
“One of the girls I’m working with at the moment, it’s like looking in a mirror from when I was her age - I was exactly the same. She’s practically a mini me!”
Jacob Bang, 24, has a similar story. He was part of the gap year at Challenge and went on to do his honours in History at Victoria University, however he struggled with alcohol and cannabis use and hit a crisis point.
One of the first people he called was Kitty, who took him to hospital. She let him stay in a youth house overnight, which turned out to be a month.
“When people are really vulnerable and need help, Challenge don’t ask questions - they just step in,” he says.
Kitty offered Jacob a job as a youth worker at Challenge, and he now works with young people struggling with those same addictions. “There’s definitely this hunger to escape their present situation and also find a place to belong to and I kind of empathise with that.”
Melehina Kilino-Lapana, 19, completed the gap year programme last year and now works in secondary schools in Porirua. She is from Tokelau and is passionate about the wellbeing of her people.
She experienced a hard time when there were several suicides at local colleges last year, including one Tokelauan girl. It was difficult for her to separate the personal from the professional.
However, it became a cry for change, both in the school and within Melehina's culture. “I think a good thing that came out of it was awareness that it’s real, because in my culture, and in others as well, suicide hasn’t been spoken about a lot, but I think the generation now is breaking that”, she says.
Over the last decade, Challenge 2000 has helped around 5000 young people each year, and worked closely with around 120 young people trying to leave behind drugs, gangs, abuse and neglect.
Kitty compares the Challenge whānau to a jigsaw puzzle, where everyone plays their part to make a whole.
"'Love works – sooner or later' is a thing we say here quite often," she says.
"It works when you give it and when you receive it."