• Natalie Jessup

Helping young people navigate new pathways through COVID-19

Sulita Povaru-Bourne, a youth worker at South Waikato Pacific Islands Community Services (SWPICS), has supported youth, who disconnected from study or work due to COVID-19, helping them to embark on new work opportunities.

Essential to enabling these young people on new pathways, was to establish solid and relationships with each individual based on their own unique needs and situation.


“We felt a confidence in Sulita and her organisation SWPICS to work on a project like this by working in personalised ways with rangatahi,’ says Michelle Howie, Project Coordinator.

By making contact and being a listening, reliable adult in their life, Sulita was able to build trust with each young person and help them find empowerment and a new direction in their life.


“I reached out to the young people who I thought might need support to move into training or work,” says Sulita, “It was about building those relationships first."

Once relationships had been built, the focus then shifted to the possibility of new vocational opportunities that were tailored for each person. Every rangatahi comes with different backgrounds, needs and skillsets. They also face many different challenges and had varying levels of resources, support and networks available to them.


Mele’s story


Mele* a first-year student at Waikato University, was abruptly sent home due to COVID-19, just as she had started to settle in, at the beginning of 2020. She had feelings of anxiety about moving home and being able to study online became a real struggle. During the day Mele had responsibilities within her home, and as a result late nights became the time where she could focus on her studies. Unfortunately, this meant that she struggled to engage with tutors as they weren’t accessible.


Mele’s home also became overcrowded during lockdown as other family members moved home. The house went from 9 to 15 people in a 3-bedroom home, significantly changing the dynamics within the home. All these factors contributed to a growing anxiety which became more prevalent in all areas of Mele’s life.


Despite all these new pressures, Mele passed her first year, which was a remarkable achievement. However, although she wanted to return the following year, she wasn’t ready to do this in the first semester. Mele’s fears of disappointing and failing her family weighed heavy on her mind and knowing that they would invest in her contributed to her decision to not return in the first semester.


Even though Mele came from a supportive family, was well connected to her community, and was a leader herself in many areas, she struggled to reach out to get support for herself and became socially withdrawn. This is when Sulita first engaged with her.


“Initially we discussed support around enrolment, assistance with accommodation, and applying for scholarships for fees,” says Sulita. “Then we went on to identify her key strengths such as leadership, helping others, working with young people/children and sharing her cultural skills.”

An action plan and support structure were put in place which included weekly meetings, timeframes, and weekly and long-term goals.


“Mele was teachable, quick learner who was really flexible,” says Sulita. “She already had leadership qualities and would proactively asked questions and think about solutions without having to be prompted”.

In the short-term Mele focused on her own wellbeing, identifying areas that would help with her anxiety including going to driving school, and having a nutritionist and a personal trainer to support her physical wellbeing.

Helping her find a new focus in employment was also key and Mele successfully assisted with the Tokoroa testing and vaccine rollout. This gave her new skills and experience and she found great purpose in this role. She has now secured casual work in health administration.




“Mele was given the opportunity to work for the next six months, before potentially returning to study,” says Sulita “and her whanau is really happy that she is doing something with her time and earning money as well”.

Pele’s story


In 2020, Pele was travelling from Tokoroa to Rotorua where he was studying electrical engineering at the Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology. Once the pandemic reached Aotearoa however, he felt isolated at home trying to navigate the online assignments and struggled to ask for help.


As the institute went into lockdown, Pele also came in contact with a family member who was affected by COVID-19. This, as well as the continued interruptions throughout the year, made it challenging for Pele to stay engaged, ultimately contributing to him detaching from his course.


During the lockdown Pele started to spend long hours gaming, staying up all night and sleeping most of the day. This became a new routine and began to affect his part time job negatively due to oversleeping, ultimately causing him to lose his job.

This lifestyle caused health issues for Pele including low self-esteem, anxiety and isolation from social settings. He knew that staying up all night and sleeping all day wasn’t what he wanted for his life and he was keen to get back on track, gain a drivers licence, start an exercise routine and possibly resume studying.


Through the support programme, Sulita helped Pele identify that he would like to be a qualified tradesman and that he had ambitions to work hard and earn good money.


Following regular meetings and conversations Pele went on to take a job at the Kinleith Pulp and Paper Mill and says he really appreciated the belief and interest shown by Sulita.


“He was happy to have someone working alongside him to help,” says Sulita, “and when given a job opportunity he took it with both hands and went out and did the job.”



Key learnings


Essential to helping all young people navigate new directions was working with them in a tailored way and adapting the support programme accordingly.


"I could be creative in how I was going to approach these young people and then empower them as to how they were going to lead it,” says Sulita. “Me making contact was the easy part, then it was about them and how they were going to move themselves forward."

Being alongside rangatahi throughout their journey and being a constant and stable person in their life is a fundamental part of being able to help these young people.


"I do think that walking alongside them the whole way works,” says Sulita. “Even though they say to me “OK tomorrow I'm going to go to the gym”, and then they don't go, it's about being there the next time whether they went or not.
“It's about engaging with them, so when it's been two weeks and they still haven't gone to the gym, I'm still there. I'm consistent. I do what I say I'm going to do.”

Sulita has faith that young people want to improve their lives, and that they know where they want to be.


“We can show them all the steps, but it's them that has to do it,” she says.

*Names have been changed



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