Connecting with young people can be hard, but Sio Vaelua seems to have cracked the code. CARLY THOMAS speaks to the youth worker who is helping kids from all walks of life in a way that is hitting home.
It's a Monday afternoon at Te Aroha Noa community services in Highbury and there is a buzz. Teenagers file in and find a space on the couch, music is playing, the fire is going and Zander the dog is everyone's friend. More kids turn up, the couch is packed, so they hang about, talking, laughing. No-one is still, there is an air of anticipation, and Zander thinks everyone is here for him.
Sio Vaelua is a youth worker here. He's also a pretty good hip-hop dancer and Monday afternoons are a time for the two things to combine. The kids think he's cool and that's an achievement in itself.
The music is cranked up and Vaelua starts the class. The vibe is a good one, the atmosphere is inclusive; there are kids from all walks of life here and you can see that they are comfortable. Everyone is giving it a go; not everybody is great but they look like they feel great.
Feeling great can be tough when you're a teenager and Vaelua acknowledges that and does more than just teach a free hip-hop class to help kids figure their thoughts out.
Vaelua wears a few hats: singer, dancer, youth worker, creative director and youth group co-ordinator. But the fact that his hat of choice is generally a baseball cap gives you an idea of his approach. Music, dance, connecting with youth at their level are what tie it all together.
He has just finished filming his new music video with local director Michael Watson. The song is titled Alive and Vaelua says it reflects his genuine, authentic self. Palmerston North is recognisable as the backdrop, kids from his youth group are there and all up the video's full of positivity. A bit like his class, kids get their feet in a tangle, laugh and carry on, no-one cares. It's all good, and the class gets bigger each week.
Soul Rize Productions is probably Vaelua's most serious hat, an intervention programme that he created in 2011. It was piloted at Monrad Intermediate in Palmerston North and currently runs in nine schools throughout Manawatu. Vaelua says he is really grateful to Monrad for taking a bit of a risk and then seeing the positive change that came out of the programme.
"Soul Rize is about equipping young people with positive life skills through a creative medium: music, dance and theatre. Connecting and finding out what their strengths are."
The programme at Monrad saw Vaelua working with at-risk young boys for two terms. There were team building exercises, reflecting on their identity, social pressures and building resilience. He says that through one-on-one mentoring and working on a dance performance, he saw the boys get out of their comfort zone and into a more positive mind space.
"They performed in front of the whole school and they did really well, they really achieved something. They worked together, they had to listen, so they learnt discipline and they learnt that they were capable of excellence. I really want them to know that they can achieve big things. They may live in a small town but they don't have to limit their dreams."
Michael Thorne is one of the first kids through the door for Vaelua's hip-hop class, shy but so keen. He loves to dance and met Vaelua at Ross Intermediate.
"I thought Sio was cool, I am into hip-hop. He knows the styles I like and he's a good teacher, he's pretty cool."
Michael exchanges a handshake with Vaelua, Michael lights up, takes his spot at the front of the class and practises his moves. He's good, Vaelua helped him find that, and now he has a focus on "getting as good as Sio".
Vaelua says he is a big-picture person, which is probably why the story doesn't stop at Soul Rize. He also works at Te Aroha Noa community services as a community youth development officer. It provides a lot of heart in Highbury, offering early childhood development, alternative education, counselling and family services.
"It's amazing and I am really honoured to work here. We are developing it as we go along but I am working with youth, who are referred here, and working with the families as a whole, working alongside them and contributing to change."
His ethos of working with youth's potential is a strong one; setting goals moving forward, and sometimes that might involve handing them a guitar, guiding them through writing some lyrics or teaching them hip-hop.
"They are all great mentoring tools, it helps break the ice, giving space for a meaningful conversation, isolating insecurities and teaching life skills."
Moira Poharama attends an alternative education class at Te Aroha Noa and says she looks forward to the hip-hop class.
"I love hip-hop, I love to dance. It's cool that Sio is helping kids do their dreams, it makes me happy. His classes are quite hard, it's funny, he goes pretty fast and we try to keep up."
Vaelua also runs a youth group called Revolve Youth, alongside his wife, Sarah Vaelua. It's for kids from all walks of life and Vaelua says it's about building positive relationships and creating a space where talents can be discovered, ownership gained and leadership skills developed.
It would seem that every turn Vaelua makes is towards creating a positive environment for youth and it makes you wonder where he came from, where the need to help was born.
Vaelua was raised in Whanganui, born into a Samoan, musical family. His dad was a musician, his uncles, grandfather, everyone, played something or sang. He says he didn't have the best start in life. Adversity was faced and life lessons were learnt along the way.
"I had some great supportive teachers at Wanganui High School. It was culturally diverse and I was exposed to the arts and in terms of music I was nurtured. I have always loved music and have danced ever since I can remember. Michael Jackson was my main influence. My mum will tell you that I was always ready to perform."
Vaelua is not a person who looks back for long and returns the conversation to the present. He's off to India soon on a trip with Good News India, which operates care centres for orphaned and destitute children. It's a trip he is excited about, saying it's a cause that is on the same heart page as his.
It's pretty fair to say that Vaelua is a good guy, someone holds the kids at the centre, with a groovy soundtrack in the background and some hip-hop moves at the forefront.
His class is in full swing, sweatshirts have been flung to the side and the fire has died down. And Zander the dog? He's asleep, having the couch finally all to himself.
- Manawatu Standard
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