At-risk kids making dreams a reality

19:55, Dec 09 2012
Anna Moala
DREAM WEAVER: Anna Moala will graduate the I Have a Dream project.

A decade of dreaming is turning into successful reality for a group of at-risk school children.

The first "I Have a Dream" project outside of the United States was created in 2003 by Scott Gilmour, who hoped to turn around the lives of more than 50 children through mentoring, tailored support and guidance as they progressed through years 4 to 13 at Wesley Primary School in Auckland.

Almost a decade later, the first cohort of "Dreamers" is making its way into universities and careers.

Kenese Samia, 17, wants to study Pacific Development at Massey University next year, something unthinkable before he joined the programme.

"It has pretty much moulded me into the man I am today," he said. "I've been through a lot of ups and downs, but now I'm done I tend to look back at the hurdles I faced and got over.

"When I was growing up there was some family violence," he said. "But, having the programme, you tend to have that space where - when something is happening in your home - you have another home where there are parent figures, who are just there open-handed ready to take you in."


Samia wants to break the school drop-out rate for Pasifika students.

"I've been through a lot and I know what a teenager goes through who struggles at home, who struggles with work at school, I know it," he said. "I can just see myself letting them know that ‘hey, this is what I faced and I hear your struggle, I know what you're going through'.

"I hope my story can motivate and encourage them because there's not that many students up there in the stats, it's my goal to change that."

For Jade Nicholas, 18, the dream was about gaining confidence.

Nicholas didn't expect to get her NCEA level 3, because statistics showed only one Pasifika student in the programme's control group managed to get it.

She says the programme was the path to success for her. "Right from the start I've managed to stay out of trouble. I knew what I wanted and I think I've grown so much throughout the programme, it's built my confidence."

All the Dreamers received university scholarships to follow their goal, which in hard times meant the difference between staying in school or not for Nicholas.

"I've learnt that if you really want something and you put the hard work in, it will be worth it, so I tried my best to stay in school," she said. "I finally finished and now I've been offered the scholarship, I thought I couldn't waste an opportunity like that, that's been my motivation.

"It's a big help because obviously a lot of us don't have the kind of money to go to university even if we wanted to."

Ant Backhouse, the programme co-ordinator for I Have a Dream, has been overwhelmed by the achievement and commitment from the students.

"It's one of those jobs when you have up and down days. You're quite emotionally torn when they make mistakes or poor choices," he said. "But now it's looking at where they are at, what they're achieving and seeing that joy of them feeling a sense of success."

Of the 53 original students, 15 live in Australia but still have access to the scholarship, 32 finished their formal high school education, two went on to tertiary institute courses, one was employed, one had a baby and is intending to go back to study, one is unemployed and only one is involved in crime.

The success of the programme is evident but, without a "kind-hearted sponsor" who wants to see achievement in high-risk students rise, the programme may not kick off again.

"Our problem in this country is that we have a lot of good stuff going on, but it's all over the place, here there and everywhere," Backhouse said. "Or it's restricted by funding criteria that will only fund for a few years or in a certain space.

"I think we need to step back and look at the bigger picture, there is great need for it."

Sunday Star Times