Youth mentors make a positive difference

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Viva meets three dynamic professionals making a difference with talented teenagers.

Jeraux Makata says his mentor David McGrath is a neutral sounding board helping him to crystallise what he wants. Photo / Babiche Martens
Jeraux Makata says his mentor David McGrath is a neutral sounding board helping him to crystallise what he wants. Photo / Babiche Martens

There are teenagers out there building a successful future, despite disadvantaged or tough home lives.

Anthony Ford, general manager of the First Foundation, which pairs talented students from low-decile schools with adult mentors from the business world says not all smart, hard-working high school students take it for granted that they'll go to university.

"When you don't have role models or when your peers don't consider going, it can be difficult. For some teens there's pressure to leave school and start work in order to help support their family," he explains.

"Quite often the students come from an environment where they don't have contact with people who've been through university," says Ford. "It's a way of introducing these kids to university life."

First Foundation mentors commit to a four-year relationship during which time they help coach students through their final high school year and throughout their undergraduate years, a process designed to guide them academically and help develop character.

An impressive 89 per cent of scholars who complete the First Foundation programme go on to graduate from university or are still studying.

Each year, schools participating in the scheme nominate academically-gifted, community-minded students for a First Foundation scholarship worth $20,000, which is then put towards tertiary fees. The unique model partners students with a business sponsor or scholarship partner who also provides paid work experience and a personal mentor. The candidates' intelligence and drive - and access to student loans - suggests these motivated students might make it to university anyway. But Ford says that's not always the case.

"As we all know, in life, talent is not necessarily enough. You need a whole network of people who believe in you and support you and can introduce you to possibilities."

The mentors are diverse group of lawyers, scientists, IT specialists, media and business people who've reached senior status in their industries. Most are graduates themselves, or are self-made. All have reached a stage in life where they want to give back. The foundation provides training and a structured course to nurture students through their last year at school and into their first few years of tertiary study. They also introduce the mentors early to the students' families, to allay any concerns they may have and to involve them as much as possible. The pairs then meet face to face at least once a month, with weekly contact made by phone, email or Facebook.

"We hear lots of great stories," says Ford. "One student who was uncertain of his direction had a mentor who was a lawyer. He reassured him law was the way to go, and the student graduated with an honours degree and is now working for Chapman Tripp. A lot of the mentors get involved with the families and continue to meet long after the programme has finished."

Jeraux Makata and David McGrath

Jeraux and David couldn't be more different.

"I am the Pakeha dad, married with three kids and living in a Mt Eden villa and working in an industry where it seems like every second guy drives a Porsche 911," says David, who works in IT Sales for technology vendor Cisco and as their account manager for Telecom Group.

"Jeraux is the young Polynesian living in South Auckland with his dad and younger brother. They don't have internet at home and he hasn't seen his mother or sister for seven years because they moved to Australia and he can't afford to fly over there. But I think coming from such different backgrounds is what makes the experience so interesting for both of us."

David describes his 17-year-old high school protege as a rock star on the brink of stardom: intelligent, good-looking and charismatic. A prefect at De La Salle College, Jeraux says his dad was always encouraging him to think about his future; David is a neutral sounding board helping him to crystallise what he wants.

"I think the most awkward part was meeting Jeraux's dad Mack for the first time, because I imagined he was thinking 'Jeraux already has a dad, so who the hell are you to come around acting like Mr Know-It-All?"' says David. "But Mack is a great guy and after getting to know each other I think he realised I am not arrogant, I am just another voice in Jeraux's life - one who hopefully can bring a useful perspective particularly around university and careers paths and where they can lead."

After years working in the banking and IT worlds in New Zealand and Britain, David felt it was time to give back to the community, and to share something of what he'd learned from his life.

When he and Jeraux first met they talked about their favourite hobbies and sports.

"It later moved on to highlighting my direction and intentions after leaving school," says Jeraux. "Which uni do I want to attend? What do I want to study? How do I get in? What do I need?"

While he's still not entirely certain, Jeraux has applied for degree programmes in architecture and engineering, and says David has opened his eyes to the possibility of IT engineering, something he'd never considered. The pair are also hopeful they can work on a plan to get Jeraux to Australia to visit his mum and sister. Throughout the process they've made time to get to know each other by visiting each other's family and paintball shooting.

A month after he started mentoring David discovered his 2-year-old daughter had autism.

"It is good to step outside your own life and see the world through someone else's eyes," David says.

"It gives you a more balanced and compassionate perspective because it makes you realise there are many people in this world who are hugely talented and full of potential, but life doesn't always give them an even break."

Hazel Tafa and Margaret Morgan

Hazel Tafa, 17 remembers the confusion she felt when she was told she had two mothers, and that the people she'd thought were her parents were actually her grandparents. Growing up in her brother's shadow with her biological mum and step-mum, she became rebellious, and when her grandfather passed away it drove her "to the wrong side of life". But when her brother went off the rails too, she decided to turn things around.

The McAuley High School student now dedicates all her achievements to her family.

She's determined to get into the University of Auckland to study accounting, and law further down the track. Her dream is to become a judge.

Despite her determination, she confesses to feeling a bit unsure when she met her mentor, Margaret Morgan, who runs her own company, Triangle Recruitment.

"She had a serious facial expression. I thought, 'Oh no, she must be real strict and bossy'."

But they were soon at ease in each other's company when they discovered they both love rugby and netball, and laughed at the same things.

Even so, Margaret says it's not important to share a lot in common.

"We are all human and want similar things out of life."

Her experience helping recruitment candidates progress their careers made the decision to become a mentor a natural step. And it's paying off. Hazel says she now thinks of Margaret as her "best friend, mother and sister combined" and that Margaret has helped to keep her on track not just with her studies but by providing access to contacts. She has even introduced Hazel to her sister, a commercial lawyer who studied at Otago.

As a result, Hazel's resolve to get a university education has increased.

"It is a huge honour to receive a scholarship and sometimes I think it takes some time to fully appreciate it," says Margaret. "She has worked hard for it and is thoroughly deserving of it."

The mentoring process has allowed Hazel to trust someone outside the family, and that has pushed her out of her comfort zone.

"With two mothers in my life it's sometimes difficult to decide who to listen to. So just having Margaret around giving me the best advice makes a huge difference.

"No offence, but I never thought [one] day I would be opening up and turning to a white woman. From a Samoan perspective, working with a white woman changes everything, you just get real excited and want to show her off to the rest of your Samoan family and friends."

Te Awhiahua Hillman and Burnette O'Connor

The next item on Te Awhiahua and Burnette's to-do list is to go to a garage sale together. Already they've been to the zoo, an art gallery, the beach - Awhi has even stayed at Burnette's place in Warkworth. The pair plan to be lifelong friends, yet, if it wasn't for the First Foundation, these two might never have met.

Awhi is a 19-year-old Mt Wellington mum with 12 siblings. After the birth of her daughter, Teanahera, four years ago, Awhi spent two years at home caring for her, before returning to school. Now that she's graduated from One Tree Hill College, Awhi hopes to study psychology, Maori studies and criminology at university.

Her mentor is a resource and environmental planner who started her own successful company, O'Connor Planning Consultants. Burnette has helped Awhi establish a study routine, and suggested the right people to contact to talk about job opportunities.

"Burnie is always encouraging and never judgmental," says Awhi. "She's an easy phone call away if ever I need advice and is always supportive of me and Teanahera. She makes us feel comfortable around her and her family. I want to be able to have a stable job in whatever profession I end up in and set up a brighter future for my daughter."

The partnership hasn't just benefited Awhi, who says Burnette's presence in her life has given her a new perspective. Burnette too says she's learned a lot about the pressures facing young people in Awhi's situation.

"I'm amazed at how politically savvy she is, much more so than I was at that age. There's quite an awareness of how things work, of government services, social policy issues.

"Awhi amazes me, she is very capable, knowledgeable, confident, friendly and strong. She is also open and has an amazing perspective of many issues."

Burnette got involved with the First Foundation through friends who'd been through the mentoring process.

"I think aspects of our personalities are similar and this helps, especially when you're discussing big life changes like leaving school and going on to university.

"There are laughs and joyful moments and moments when the different perspectives make you realise how your own ideas and experiences are just that - your own - and they don't necessarily apply to others. No two people's experiences will be the same and many aspects of the transition from school to uni are a small part in a much greater journey."

"Things have changed," adds Awhi, "because I have a friend to call when I need help with something or wise advice that is different to my parents'."

* Visit First Foundation to find out more or ph 0800 HAND UP (0800 426 387).

- NZ Herald

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