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Tuesday, 21 May 2019 02:37 pm

Te Rakau or jail? Where the lost boys can go for help

How do you turn around the life of a young man who’s got nowhere left to go? KARA LOK found out when she spent time at Te Rakau, Wellington’s Maori education and drama company:


Troubled boys: Te Rakau turns the lives of their rangatahi around.

TROUBLED BOYS: Te Rakau turns the lives of their rangatahi around. POSED PHOTO


TEN mismatched towels hang in a line blocking out the sound of the busy midday traffic streaming below.

Beneath them a baby sleeps in a stroller. In the centre of the room a group of boys sit at a table finishing the remains of their bacon and egg rolls. The group is unremarkable, no different from any other kids their age.

Two years ago, one of the boys, Kris Fairdough, ran out of options. Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu Trust, a Maori education and drama company, was his last resort.

During his first few weeks at the Newtown centre, Kris was pessimistic about the programme. The prospect of dance and drama turning his life around seemed unlikely.

“I didn’t want a bar of it,” says Kris shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “I thought it was just really whakama (embarrassing). I didn’t want to act. I didn’t want to jump on stage, nothing.”

These days Kris is a different person.

As one of the programme facilitators, he helps the current rangatahi (youth) turn their lives around, just as he did.

However, not all of the boys who come through the programme are as lucky as Kris. As Te Rakau’s Director of Services, Aperira Hohepa-Smalle, is quick to point out. “Kris is an absolute exception, he comes from a really good, solid background.

“He exercised his right to make choices that were not in his greater good. A lot of our other boys come from homes where they have not been nurtured where they could and should have been and a lot of them have been betrayed at the most basic fundamental level.”

After leaving the programme, many of these boys fall back into their old behaviour patterns.  They lie, cheat and steal, and use unhealthy means of self gratification like drugs, sex and alcohol in order to survive.

Making the road to success a long one for Te Rakau’s rangatahi.

But how is “success” measured? For Te Rakau, success is relative. Learning to communicate clearly, returning to school, becoming literate, entering a tertiary institution and maintaining a job are all considered to be forms of success for the programme’s co-ordinators.

Aperira says: “For general Jo and Joan average out there, they would think that a boy learning to be able to go to the doctor without someone having to make an appointment is ludicrous.

“For Te Rakau, a boy being able to go to a doctor and being able to articulate to the doctor, ‘doctor, I have a problem and I need you to help me’ is a success.”

Transition manager Heeni Collins agrees. “It’s hard for outsiders to really understand that our outcomes might not be as huge as they might hope for, but our outcomes are still worth it as far as we are concerned.

“What we do here provides really intense positive experiences, that give them hope and give them a much better chance of a better future.”

However, Heeni says the boys success is always tempered by the backtracking and limitations, because they often want to reconnect with their whanau.

Te Rakau, funded by the Ministry of Social Development’s Child Youth and Family, is run by Wellington actor Jim Moriarty and his partner, Helen Pearse-Otene.

Since becoming a 24-hour facility for predominantly Maori boys aged between 12 and 17 in 2004, Te Rakau has helped hundreds of troubled rangatahi.

The boys work towards their own recoveries  by focusing on  the four areas of hauora (well being) developed by Massey universities asisstant vice chancellor, Professor Mason Durie.

Taha wairua (spiritual well-being), taha hinengaro (mental and emotional well-being), taha whanau (family and social well-being) and taha tinana (physical well-being).

The areas of well-being come into play daily during Te Rakau’s porowhita sessions (talking together in a circle).

Porowhita is an effective medium for rangatahi who find any form of communication challenging, says director of services Aperira.

“The porowhita is perfect because they learn how to articulate emotions in a safe way,” she says.

“For instance, a lot of our boys come from homes where he who yelled loudest or struck out first wins the argument. Here we teach them that violence is not tolerated.”

The boys referred to Te Rakau by Child, Youth and Family come from low socio-economic backgrounds. In most cases, the boys’ parents have failed to provide them with appropriate structures and emotional support.

They have experienced relationship breakdowns, not just within their own families but within their foster families, as well. Many have suffered emotional and physical abuse at the hands of loved ones. As a result, the boys have severe abandonment and rejection issues.

Transition manager Heeni says Te Rakau’s staff are dealing with the extreme end of behavioural difficulties. “We are not dealing with angels. They’re not coming here for a toothache. When you hear what they have come through, their stories are horrific.”

Despite this, she says the boys are amazingly resourceful and talented and they get more loveable over time.

At any given time there is a staff ratio of two to one at the centre, with up to 10 boys attending the programme at once. Each boy has his own facilitator, who stays with him throughout the day helping with chores and activities.

These activities consist of a kaupapa (rules) session, counselling, theatrical blocks and a correspondence session, where the boys are taught maths, Maori and English by Heeni.

Kris Fairdough says his role as a facilitator is to provide the boys with the additional support they need to complete Te Rakau’s programme. “We are with the boys 24/7. We put them to bed at night and wake up with them in the morning. We get contractors in for the morning and afternoon blocks and we support the boys through the classes they are running.”

During the afternoon, the boys learn Maori contemporary and traditional arts, as well as sa-sa, Samoan slap dance.

In these slots the boys also work on the various theatre and dance productions written for Te Rakau by co-ordinator Helen Pearse-Otene.

The boys are currently working on a play called The Maori Battalion. The piece follows a Maori family’s plight during the second world war, revealing the experiences of each family member.

Helen’s partner, Jim Moriarty, is the programme director and is responsible for the boys’ general well-being. He leads the daily porowhita sessions and directs Te Rakau’s theatre and dance productions.

Heeni Collins describes Jim’s leadership as “charismatic, funny and firm when it’s necessary”. She is in charge of organising study and job opportunities for the boys after they leave.

“I was taken on full time last January to work with the 16- and 17-year-olds to help them decide what to do after the leave Te Rakau,” she says. “However, because of the nature of the boys, there’s crises and incidents happening all the time. There is always back-tracking, with boys being asked to leave and new boys coming in  causing disruptions. It is a challenge.”

Despite this, Heeni has helped several boys make a future for themselves. “We have had our success stories,” she says.

A previous rangatahi – who dropped out of college with 30 NCEA credits towards level 2 – has returned to high school to get the credits he needs to enter a hospitality course. He now has regular contact with his family, from whom he was previously alienated.

Heeni: “He has good potential and says he’s doing great.”

Another ex-Te Rakau boy, who she says is a strong cultural (Maori) leader, gained entrance to a mechanical engineering course.

For that sort of success, to break the cycle, the boys’ families need to get the same level of support as their sons, says Aperira.

“The sad thing is that we get the kids to they have developed up to a specific level and then they could be returned home to their environments. However, if the families themselves are not getting that level of support then the boys will retreat to their old habits.”

She believes many of these families spend too much time trying to access social services. “A high consumer, in my opinion, would be so busy accessing social services to see what they can get. They have got tentacles into social services organisations right across the community.”

Despite this, Aperira feels Te Raukau is making a real difference to both the rangatahi and their families’ lives. “For every woman who has fought for their son to come on this programme, there have been wonderful outcomes for their children,” she says.

In light of the Maori Party’s whanau ora policy, Maori whanau may soon be able to get the sort of support Te Rakau provides to their rangatahi. Maori Party leader Tariana Turia has said: “Whanau ora is the way forward to achieving a future where whanau determine what is in their best interests.”

My interview with Kris Fairdough comes to an abrupt end. One of the rangatahi has broken a toilet in a fit of rage. Kris leaves me to join the boys in the centre of the room for a porowhita session.

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