Waikato Wellbeing Project Lots of Little Fires

He Puaawai - Flipping the script on what it means to be a young parent

Joe Wilson on June 2023

This month we are humbled to share the story of a ‘little fire’ where resilience, empathy and drive burn fiercely and are showcased in beautiful abundance.  A place where brave young parents, who face incredible challenges every single day, are choosing to flip the script and be the inspiring change they want to see in the world. We welcome you to meet the young parents at He Puaawai Teen Parent Unit.

Arriving early, we set up the filming space and equipment before the young parents and staff arrived. Over the past few weeks I have been gently warning Muredach that some of the young parents might feel a bit whakama, a bit shy and self conscious, when engaging and speaking to the camera. I said we should make a real effort to make the space as warm and welcoming as possible so they feel safe and comfortable to be themselves. As soon as the doors opened and the young parents entered we heard shouts of…

Shani participating in Lots of Little Fires video

 “Ah cool, they're here!! Let's get the babies in front of the camera!’

 “And me…how do I look haha’!”

“Aww how cool is this! Can I try the camera?!”

Muredach and I looked at each other and laughed, we clearly had nothing to worry about!

The first thing you notice about He Puaawai is that the negative stereotyping, so often inflicted on teen parents, is totally dismissed and flipped on its head. The young parents here are nurtured to embody a deep sense of self and an immense pride for who they are, what they stand for and what they are working towards.

“We actively reject the concept of second chance education or second chance learning here because every young person in Aotearoa New Zealand has a right to an education” says Gill Cotter, He Puaawai Curriculum leader. “We provide a full NCEA educational pathway for young people wishing to continue their high school education whilst they're hapu or after their babies have been born.”

Gill was previously a well loved and respected teacher of English at Fraser High School, but when the opportunity to take the role of ‘Curriculum Lead’ for He Puaawai came up, she jumped at the chance.

“I cannot say how proud I am of all the young people and staff here, it really is the privilege of my life to be serving this community,” says Gill, a fierce advocate for the rights of all young people, especially those who have been most marginalised by society.

The educational experience at He Puaawai is absolutely holistic and designed to respond to the unique and individual needs that each young parent brings. These may be health related check-ins with the nurse, issues with their accommodation, food support or money advice, whatever they need support with, they can access it here. Gill describes it beautifully;

“A whakatauki that encompasses our pedagogy at He Puaawai is ‘Ma te huruhuru ka rere te manu’ and it means ‘adorn the bird with feathers that it may fly’. When I think about this place, I often think about it like a nest. It's somewhere that's safe, it's all encompassing. It's a place to catch your breath. I believe that He Puaawai is both a soft place to land and a taking off point and it's a place for me, for all our staff to walk alongside our, our young parents as they add numerous, numerous feathers to their korowai.``

Watching the young parents, the staff and the babies interact and go about their business, what stands out most is the genuine love and care they all have for each other. The environment is full of aroha and manaaki that it really is hard to put into words.

“He Puaawai is amazing” laughs Avia. There is awesome support here. It's not just, you know, education, we have moms, we all support each other and we're like our own little family we all look after each other and our teachers. There are so many opportunities here for our health too, it's not just education. Gill looks after us moms as well, she takes us out for the day, whether it's to a cafe, or we do self-defence classes, we even got some massages so she ticks a lot of our boxes. It's not just about our babies and our education, it's us too, which is, yeah, it's really awesome. I didn't expect that coming here. We are pretty lucky for this place.”

Brady, who is holding her three year old daughter, says, “It is the relationships and support that makes it so special here. Having bonds with everyone. Our babies having bonds, having bonds with our teachers. Just, there's just so many special bonds you wouldn't get at a mainstream school.”

Mia, agrees, “This place is really special to me already ‘cause it's nothing like normal school and it's like a safe place and like a second home as well, even for my baby because we've been out of school and he's just been at home with me for a long time and it's, I love it here”

Jazz, Matepaki and Avia, also carrying their babies and children, tautoko Mia and Bradys’ comments and collectively share the sentiment that, “This is a second home to all of us, it's family.”

A typical day starts off early with a van pick up which collects the parents who cannot get in by themselves. When they arrive at He Puaawai, the girls and staff instantly check in on each other and pour love over each other's babies. It is a beautiful process to witness and one which immediately shows the maturity and instinctive nurture these young parents possess.

“Well because we are all moms or like, we are all parents, we have an understanding of a lot of things, we can just be open about literally anything and yeah, the atmosphere is good and everyone here is good.” explains Matepaki, a twenty year old parent with a five year old son.

“Yeah, like if one of the moms comes in wearing their pyjamas, we don't judge them. They've obviously had a long night with their baby, they look a mess, but it's all right. They're still here.” says Jazz, smiling.

“Yeah like, you know, we don't look good every day!” laughs Matepaki.

Once they and their babies are calm, they drop them off at the onsite creche and come back to make themselves a cup of much needed coffee.

The creche is part of the same building, both of which are adjacent to the Fraser High School campus. This, as all the young parents and staff agree, plays a significant part in making He Puaawai so impactful and special.

“One thing about being a parent is your babies are your world. So you wanna protect them and knowing that they're just gonna be down the hallway, you have a sense of calm and like relief that if you need to go check on them, they're right there.” says one of the young parents (who wishes to stay anonymous).

When everyone has had their coffee and eaten a bit of breakfast, staff and learners all come together and share Karakia. This sets the positive intention for the day and leads each young parent into their own individualised learning programme. Many of the learners who come to He Puaawai have little or no educational achievement to that point and may not have been in education for some time as a result of falling hapu or having a child. 

“For lots of our young parents, they are the wahine toa in their own home. They live independently. They might not be connected to their immediate whanau or any family. So they know that by being here, they, in a lot of senses, are breaking all kinds of cycles around intergenerational trauma and the impacts they have. Lots of our learners are the first person in their extended family to finish high school. And if you talk to them, if you ask them about their purpose, they're very clear on their purpose, that they're doing it for their baby” explains Gill.

Matepaki, a 20 year old mum with a five year old son, explains how as a child, she was not role modelled or supported to be at school by her whanau;

“Like growing up, we never knew that going to school every day was normal. We were allowed to take, you know, three days off, four days off of school and stay out at night till like two or three in the morning. So we never knew it was normal and I just wanted to change the cycle for my baby. Like I want her to actually have an education and you know, get somewhere in life, not like us, you know, I didn't what her to go through what I went through and that's why I come to school every day, so my baby can see that, you know, oh, if I'm doing it then you know, she can do it too.”

The grit, resolve and pure love these young parents have for their babies and children's futures is heroic.

“Well, when I started here I didn't have level one or two,” says Brady. “So I ended up focusing on level one for my first few months and got it within the first month and a half. I got level two last year and started level three this year. My main goal is to pursue an early childhood education and midwifery.”

Mia explained that He Puaawai had saved her and that before she came here she was very low and felt isolated.

“I've learned things, new things to do as a parent and I'm actually learning like schoolwork now because I was outta school for so long I became quite dumb. But now I'm actually learning and getting back on track with my life. I want to be able to give my baby everything that I never had and yeah, just be the best I can be for him and just do life with him. I’m really excited. I hope to stay here for as long as I can and yeah, it'll help me reach my goals as well. I’d like to do art and maybe be a tattoo artist, do tattoos that are meaningful for people.”

Jazz, proud mother of her two year old daughter, explained how she doesn't know what she would have done without He Puaawai.

“I dropped out of school when I was 14 and then Asia came along and then my youth coach found this place. I believe babies come for a reason and she literally turned my life around. Before I was like, you know, young dumb doing silly stuff and now I'm a full on mom about to have another baby, have my own house, my own car, pay my own bills. You know, like, it's just crazy. Looking back to like four years ago, I would've never thought that I would be here.”

“I wanna be a lawyer. I just have a passion for people, helping people, especially young children in the system. That's what having Asia made me think. Some children are just in the wrong places and that needs to be sorted out.”

Avia, 19, holds her one year old daughter who she describes as her ‘miracle baby’.

“Yeah I got a little bit of a plan” she smiles. “I definitely wanna get my credits. For me, I want to have that accomplishment that I was able to have my daughter and still be able to graduate and get all my credits and to show her one day that, you know, you can do anything. You know?  Then I see myself having my own business. I'm definitely a business woman. I have so many business ideas!”

Watching all the smiles from the babies and young parents together paints such a beautiful scene and one that Matepaki is particularly passionate about.

“Yeah I really like capturing special moments, through photography, especially of parents with their babies and children. Like you don’t get those moments twice so I would really like to do something with that.”

As much as ‘Lots of Little Fires’, as a kaupapa, and the tone of today's story is about celebration and positive messaging, the truth about the challenges and negative stereotyping experienced by these young parents has to be acknowledged and presented through their own words and lived experiences. Without their perspectives being shared, there could be a false belief that everything for our young parents is fine and matches the level of support they receive here at He Puaawai; that there is nothing that needs to be done in society to support or further improve the conditions for one of our most vulnerable communities. The sad reality is, that everyday, the same, and often new challenges arise that each young parent has to navigate and overcome, just to live the basic healthy life for themselves and their babies that most of us take for granted. These challenges have to be actively raised, addressed and resolved by determined social justice leaders, like Gill and her team daily. Along with other human rights advocates in places of influence, the constant battle is to ensure a lazy neglect or a privileged denial, at all societal levels, is prevented from taking hold allowing continued damage to the lives of our young parents who are facing the biggest barriers and living in the most challenging environments. This starts with addressing the damaging effects of negative stereotyping and Gill actively encourages the young parents to speak up.

“This community is often told to be quiet, it is judged and it is often dismissed” says Gill. “We know that those tropes are very limiting. They're lazy and unoriginal. They're extremely deficit so this place is about changing that narrative and having ownership of their own stories. I want our young parents to take up space in the world and to tell their stories and to know that they have value, immense value.”

All the young parents here have, and continue to experience, the damaging effects of the wider societal perspective of what it means to be a teen mom.

“Like they always say, um, babies having babies.” Says Mia, “But I don't think your age defines how good of a mother you can be because there's some moms out there that are way older and they do bad, they can be bad parents. And then there's teen moms here that are like the best moms you can get. But like that age doesn't mean anything 'cause there can be bad teen parents as well. So it's nothing to do with being a teenager. It's good or bad moms, not your age that counts.”

One of the young parents, who wishes to remain anonymous, feels strongly about the impact negative stereotyping has on some of the other young parents at He Puaawai who are living in and experiencing incredibly difficult environments.

“With stereotyping, I would just wish that people would keep their opinions to themselves unless they've been in the situation that others here are in. Some of the girls in here, I know they don't have family, they don't have friends and they're either raising babies or, you know, carrying life all alone. They've got the world on top of their shoulders, let alone stereotyping. And that's the sad part is that I wish, for those moms that are out there or even in our class now, I just wish that people would think before they speak. Because once words have been said, that's it. People can forgive people but they can't forget once it's been said.”

Matepaki talks openly about her lived experiences and how the negative stereotyping aimed at teen parents manifests in her daily life.

“We have so many challenges. Like honestly we face so much judgement just because past generations have ruined it for all of us. We get looked down on by so many people like housing landlords and property managers, work and income, even hospitals. Like I've been in emergency and transitional housing for almost two years now because I can’t find a rental and it's just not healthy for my baby. Like she will be five this year and like, you know, we stay in a single room with just the bathroom. We are surrounded by bad people doing and selling drugs, violence and it's just not good.”

Jazz has also lived in emergency housing and shares her experience.

“So when I first moved into emergency housing, my daughter was two weeks old. I was obligated to do three or four viewings a week and that was hard with no car. My mom's a nurse so sometimes I got her to take me in her scrubs, so, you know, make me look good. We would do like five or six viewings a week with my baby and her capsule, dragging her everywhere with us. It just wasn't nice, especially on those wet, rainy days. You don't want them to get sick or anything, but you are obligated to do those viewings otherwise they won't pay for your room. And then you are homeless. You have to really prove that you want a house.  It's not like, you know, we actually wanted to go into emergency housing. Things happened in our lives and it meant we had nowhere else to go. Like you don't want your baby in that space. There's all kinds of ‘out of it’ people living in emergency housing, drugs being sold, prostitution, all sorts of ugly stuff.”

Matepaki nods her head in agreement,

“I just don't think they actually really care or think about where they put you. They just put you somewhere and they don't do background checks, you know, to see who actually stays in the other rooms or if it's safe for any of us or our babies and stuff like that. They just put us there and hope that we are okay. But yeah, I've been in transitional housing for a year now and it's just not nice.”

Sadly, It is not just the housing system that has and continues to bring hugely negative experiences to many of the young parents here. Eva’s journey to this point has been significantly traumatic in ways most of us could not imagine and these have been found in the places and spaces nobody would expect. Eva’s journey to this point has been heartbreakingly cruel and difficult yet uplifting and inspiring, the latter as a result of the support she has received while at He Puaawai.

“So my name's Eva. I fell pregnant at 12 and had my son, Jericho at age 13”.

“When I told my Intermediate School I was pregnant, they kicked me out. I was only 12 and it was horrible because it made me feel like I had done something wrong.”

Not only did her School kick her out, but her own family were against her having the baby and were ‘very unsupportive’ to put it politely.

“I had to fight to keep my baby as my family wanted to take him away from me. They were saying horrible things so I had to leave and move in with my partner's family. They helped me fight to keep him and I am so grateful for them. It took a year and it was hard because they had five or six other children and had little to no money. We often struggled for food to eat so that was a really difficult time.”

If this wasn’t enough for such a young girl hapu with her baby, Eva was then told that she was unable to get access to a midwife as they said she was too young to have one.

“That hurt I must say’ says Eva reflecting on that time. “I was like, who's gonna check up on me? Like how am I gonna know if my baby's all right? But yeah, that's midwives, they just need to change their whole situation.”

It’s hard to hear Eva describe her story and not feel a deep anger towards the systems and organisations that exist to support our most vulnerable. That they can fail them so spectacularly. The neglect from her whanau, her school and the health care system, for such an incredibly vulnerable young person. It seems simply inhumane and a situation most of us could not imagine happening to ourselves at that age or to our own daughters.

Ironically Eva is actually now exceeding her peers in mainstream education. She has achieved her NCEA level two and is thriving in her learning. It is another testament to wonderful work the staff at He Puaawai are achieving with their young learners.

Eva speaks softly and with a calmness that counters the abrasive and turbulent experiences she describes.  “Things are changing though and we have had people from the Uni coming in to talk to me and other young parents about what we have been through.”

Avia joins Eva on the couch and puts her arm around her, not because Eva is upset, but in a show of solidarity, that they are all in it together.

“The Uni are helping us by doing research about the challenges that Eva and so many other young mums here have faced. We want to make change for future young parents… so they don’t have to go through what we went through” states Avia in a gentle yet staunch voice. “We are speaking up and making change for all young mums.”

It is so clear, after hearing the stories shared by the young parents, why places such as  He Puaawai are so incredibly important in our communities. It is also so very evident that teen parent units cannot exist solely as a place of education or childcare. They have to be all encompassing, holistic and staffed by fiercely committed and passionate people who will walk alongside these wahine toa to ensure they get the absolute support and love they deserve and need. The staff all agree that they need to be the directors of how best to serve the young parents they support and for that to be responded to by governmental funders and policy makers to ensure that what is needed on the ground is what drives policy. Gill is staunchly clear about her hopes for the young parents when they leave;

“It's incredibly important that when our learners leave here, that they leave knowing who they are, that they leave with a sense of empowerment and being proud of who they are. Because the shame that's often laid on the shoulders of young parents, it's not theirs to carry. In fact, that shame has nothing whatsoever to do with them. So my wish for all our parents when they leave us, is that they go with a deep sense of self. That they have learned to read the world around them, that they understand the systems and the structures that are at play in the world  and that they understand that often, those systems are designed to work against them. I want them to have that deep sense of advocacy for themselves and others and I want them to take up space. This community is often told to be quiet, it is often dismissed so I encourage them to tell their stories and to know that they have value, immense value. But mostly I want them to go out and live with joy and find joy because they're the most incredible bunch of people.”

The amazing and transformational work He Puaawai does cannot work in isolation. The challenges and perceptions experienced by the young parents here span across all sectors of society. They are impacted by landlords, emergency and transitional housing providers, property managers, places of employment, further education, work and income, the healthcare system, the media, the list is endless. What is strikingly obvious to me is that there has to be a more interconnected relationship between the above-mentioned sectors united by a strong moral compass and ethic that ensures our vulnerable young parents are seen, valued and supported in the way they have an absolute right to.

There is a need for housing that is catered to this vulnerable community and for ethical landlords and property managers to make themselves visible so they can advocate for these inspirational young parents when they are ready to find their own homes. But more pressing than anything right now, is a clamp down on the state of emergency housing and the disgusting level of freedom and absolute lack of social responsibility that is afforded to the owners of these buildings. When I ask Gill what she would like to see done, she explains that the offer is always there to come and be an ally to this amazing community and to be a part of the change that helps make this society a better place.

“I think it would be really hard for anyone to stand in judgement of this community because the moment that you come through our doors, what you see is resilience in extraordinary measure, you see heart, you see courage, you see a dogged, a fierce determination, and a refusal to be put into a box.

After a long day of filming, tears of joy and sadness, I ask the young parents if they have any final comments or messages they would like to share with other young parents or people in society.

Matupaki wanted to speak to other young people who are hapu or with baby but were unsure of coming to somewhere like He Puaawai;

“I didn't really wanna come here, it was just different for me, like outta my comfort zone. And then like, I actually made an attempt to come and yeah, now I've been here for three years this year and it's amazing. Like, yeah, you get just so many opportunities and just so many loving people and so much support, no matter what type of background you come from or who you are and stuff like that, you always get the same, you know, treatment as everyone else and you get well supported.”

Avia wanted to speak out to other young mums too;

“For me, I would've liked to have had the reminder that everything works out for a reason. Everything happens for a reason, and you just gotta keep a positive mindset with things. Just, yeah, look for the brights in life. Yeah. That's all I gotta say.”

Brady shared the same sentiment and says simply;

“He Puaawai is just the place to be if you are a young parent, if you haven't found one already, you got to find yourself a He Puaawai, it is just amazing. There needs to be more places like this because so many young parents don’t get the support we get here.”

Jazz wanted to speak to the people judge young parents by explaining how becoming a mother changed everything for her in the best possible way;

“A lot of people think that being a young parent stops everything. If anything it makes things start. Like, before I had my baby, I dropped out and was up to no good. Really didn't have a purpose but then I had her and everything changed, my morals changed, I got more patience, you need to have patience with kids and yeah, I am just a completely different person to be honest. Some people need that.”

Eva’s message was to the midwives and schools;

“To the midwives, don't ever not take in someone because they're too young like I had and to schools don’t kick someone out because they are pregnant, it’s just not nice.”

And finally Mia just wanted to share her gratefulness to the staff and team at He Puaawai;

“Just, thank you a lot for, well, this place saved me, so I'm really, really thankful for that and it helps me every single day. Yeah. And you guys are cool haha.”

Having been so lucky to share such precious time with the young parents and staff at He Puaawai, both Muredach and I left with very warm hearts and an incredible level of respect and admiration for all the young parents we met. Since filming, we have often reflected on the stories and experiences they shared with us; the challenges and the sadness that many of them have and continue to go through. But what outweighs that sadness is the absolute hope and excitement we all have for their futures, the futures which they are working so passionately to carve out every single day for both themselves and their babies, to flip the script and break the cycles they experienced and be the change they want to see in the world.

We would like to thank He Puaawai, Fraser High School and most of all the young parents, who shared their stories so openly and with so much joy! We salute you!

Watch the video here


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