Community initiatives positive impact on youth

By James Fuller


Youth crime is an emotive subject with its foundations in areas such as parenting, community development, schooling, politics, and law and order. The Bay of Plenty Times investigates the situation in the Western Bay and talks to those who are tackling its causes.

The perception persists for many people that youth crime and anti-social behaviour remain prevalent in New Zealand.

But it is not a view you will hear echoed by the Western Bay's youth workers.

Gerry Purcell has been involved with youth work for nine years and takes a philosophical approach.

"From time to time you have to be prepared to put up with a fair amount of rubbish from them," says the Welcome Bay Community Centre treasurer.

"The kids do what they can to rev you up but you have to stand your ground. I've had things stolen, which caused me a bit of grief. My house never got tagged but my fence did ... I would just go out there and paint it out."

Mr Purcell is one of a band of community-minded people who give of their time to improve young people's lives and outlooks.

Crime reduction is a by-product of what they do; engaging youngsters, providing role models when they have none, and organising regular activities both during term time and holidays.

"You have to have the passion to help the young people when they don't know they want to be helped. You have to engage them. It's not for everyone," says the retired naval lieutenant commander.

Although Mr Purcell is ex-military, he is not a believer in the big stick approach.

"You have to be firm, consistent and have boundaries but you also have to interact with the kids. They have to have someone they can refer to so they can develop standards.

"But I try not to use my parade ground voice too regularly," he laughs.

One time he did use it was when a group of youths were seen on the roof of the Welcome Bay shops dislodging tiles.

"Two or three kids were up there looking for a way in."

Mr Purcell moved to a position below where the boys were but where he could not be seen. He then bellowed up asking them what they were doing. One was so shocked he fell off the roof.

Vandalism, tagging and bullying

"They congregated afterwards and said they were just having some fun. I told them when you start damaging somebody else's property it ceases to be fun. There were around 15 to 18 of them and I told them all to go home. Most drifted off but a group of three or four just went round the back of the shops again, so I followed them, asked them what they were doing and, when I wasn't satisfied with the answer, escorted them home.

"The last time we had a problem was August/September last year when there was some vandalism, tagging and bullying. A group were standing over people demanding money at the shops but the five youths concerned were apprehended.

"Since then everything has been good."

That was not the case about five years ago when Mr Purcell said Welcome Bay had major problems.

"The troublemakers generally, and I am generalising, have dropped out of school, have very low self-esteem, come from homes where one of their parents is not present and perhaps there is a stepfather who does not get involved in their lives in any sort of positive way."

The statistics back up Mr Purcell's assertion that the situation has improved.

Figures obtained from Statistics NZ reveal the number of crimes committed by Western Bay youngsters aged 14 to 16 fell from 1404 in 2009 to 999 in 2012 - a decrease of 405, or 29 per cent.

Nationally, over the same period, figures for the age group fell from 29,633 to 22,589; a drop of 7044, or 24 per cent.

Youth crime is falling and it is thanks in no small part to community centres like those in Merivale and Welcome Bay.

When Welcome Bay children have been caught tagging by other residents, or their own extended family, many are sent down to see 'Gerry at the community centre'.

Mr Purcell said once youngsters had been engaged in painting out tagging - either their own or other people's - they rarely re-offended.

"If they get caught again after being to us the first time, then they would be sent to the police. So we do give them that opportunity to turn things around. Some of these kids are almost our policemen now. If they see anything they report it to us."

A drop-in event is held for young people every Friday night from 6.30pm to 9pm at the Welcome Bay Hall. It regularly attracts between 50 and 100 young people.

"It's for anyone from two to 25, we don't restrict it because many of them would be looking after younger siblings and wouldn't be able to bring them if we did.

"We have a pool table, table tennis table, music, karaoke system, board games, and balls for a half-basketball court outside where we organise team sports.

"You have to vary it. We have guest speakers, a hip hop dance instructor, we even had a martial arts instructor once.

"He was a small Korean man and some of the bigger lads took one look at him and thought they could take him. He was Korean ex-military and they soon found themselves on their backs."'having positive impact on youth

A  way for young people to do something more constructive

There are Saturday and Sunday afternoon activities held away from the community centre - such as 10-pin bowling, laser tag, paintballing and beach trips to play baseball or volleyball.

A school holiday programme is also organised, as well as participation in the Duke of Edinburgh Hillary Award. The award scheme for 14 to 24-year-olds is designed to offer a series of challenges to young people to help them grow and develop.

Mr Purcell is administrator of the award scheme at the community centre.

"It's mostly 14-year-olds and we learn things like bushcraft and mountain safety. We take them hiking in the Kaimais and the Coromandel. Twice a year we go to Mt Ruapehu."

When asked what he gets from his youth work, Mr Purcell laughs.

"Oh well, it ensures I'm not idle," before adding, "I guess I'm just choosing to put something back into my community."

Others who are making the same choice can be found at Merivale Community Centre, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

The centre was begun by a group of volunteer residents to address problems with youths.

"Our core business of connecting with the youth hasn't changed," says the centre's services manager, John Fletcher.

"Once the youngsters have left primary school they get a bit more independence and, depending on their home influences, could start hanging around the streets more.

"That could lead to involvement with other things from low-level crime like tagging to more serious involvement with alcohol and drugs.

"What we offer is a way for young people to do something more constructive with their time. We don't have enough resources to connect with everyone but we're confident that what we're doing is having a positive impact."

The centre offers a range of programmes for Merivale's young people: a computer studio run after school each day focused on skills' development for 10-15-year-olds; school holiday programmes; a community youth programme with activities including carving, cooking, physical education, a discussion evening, and a sports night which regularly attracted upwards of 50.

Problems centred on groups of young people hanging out

Youth workers are also employed with responsibilities in four main areas: the 5-11 age group, 11 upwards, leadership development, and a mentoring programme.

Community Constable Leanne Fairbairn is based at Greerton's Tauranga South Police Station, which covers the Tauranga suburbs of Gate Pa, Greerton, Merivale and Welcome Bay.

She says issues with groups of youths at Fraser Cove and Gate Pa shopping centres are not uncommon. "We have some youth issues in Tauranga South but those same issues are replicated in most parts of Tauranga."

Problems centred on groups of young people hanging out rather than on youth gangs affiliated to larger gangs or gangs in larger cities.

"We don't have the problem of large congregations of youth gangs to the same extent as other cities seem to have. Ours is mostly around youths congregating outside shopping centres, on public streets or in parks, blocking footpaths and behaving in an anti-social way."

Mrs Fairbairn says the actions of community organisations such as Welcome Bay and Merivale means the issue has got better in her six years as a community constable.

"It goes in cycles and I certainly wouldn't say it's got worse. When there have been issues we have worked with the community in a collaborative fashion to sort things out and provide activities."

Tauranga National MP Simon Bridges says youth crime is falling.

"It's still a problem but it's less than it used to be. I think there's a perception around crime and youths that things are getting worse but that's not the reality," he said.

Community work is having an impact

"Two or three years ago, I would have readily accepted there were pockets of Tauranga where you could find large groups of youths wandering around late at night without homes to go to, and possibly with drug or alcohol use involved. But my office is seeing far fewer complaints like that today.

"There's some good community work going on in places like Merivale, Welcome Bay and Arataki. That, combined with good community policing, is having an impact.

"Crime in general is decreasing and although alcohol is still a big problem, we are seeing a hardening of attitudes on it. That's reflected in law and at community level so, for example, there's less tolerance of liquor outlets selling to those who are underage.

"The majority of young people are smart, well-adjusted and will add to society. Even where youths might have come from less privileged upbringings we are working to address that and there are some people doing wonderful work out there at the community level."

Les Simmonds, at Relationships Aotearoa (formerly Relationships Services), says young people are too often made scapegoats when the real issues lay with their environment.

"It's all too easy to have a go at young people today blaming them for this and that but we need to redirect that energy into supporting them. Create communities that support young people and we all benefit," says the Tauranga-based national clinical leader for family services.

Positive role models, he says, do not have to be parents. "As a child, I always had my mother at home but many of my friends did not. They would spend time at their neighbour's homes and they would get that parenting role model from them. With people increasingly busy at work, I don't think enough of that happens today. We have done it really well in the past but it's been lost somewhat.

"If we can help create those family environments and communities that support the raising of children we will see dramatic changes in our society," said Mr Simmonds.

"If adolescents have better relations with family they are less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour. Youth crime, drinking, drug use, doing well at school, they are all affected."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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