Peter Shimwell of Orewa is Youthline’s clinical services manager and has built a career on supporting volunteers. Despite the challenges that the voluntary sector has with recruitment and retention, Peter believes that as a caring, can-do society, support for people in need will always be there. He spoke with Terry Moore.
My interest in voluntary work stemmed from helping out at children’s camps during the summer break from Liverpool University. It gave me a taste of the special feeling and enjoyment that comes from helping and supporting others. That was the start of a career in community work that led to my current role with Youthline. I grew up in a big city, Sheffield, with two very supportive parents and things at home were good. But I was always aware that there were other children in my school who didn’t have a great life. When someone needs a hand, it’s natural to muck in and help. I’ve found that is a very Kiwi trait. After university I went to South Africa to teach English in Lesotho, which is a very poor country – one of the poorest in the world. Children there often don’t have enough to eat or access to schooling. It gave me a different perspective and made me very aware of the privileges we enjoy in the Western world. I wanted an experience where I was able to make a difference but also just the opportunity to travel across Africa, visiting lots of amazing places.
My wife Melanie and I moved to New Zealand with our children Michael and Amy a few years ago. My brother has lived on the Hibiscus Coast for many years and runs an insurance business in Orewa. We came to take a career break and look at potentially settling. I had worked around education, youth and social services for many years and wasn’t sure what would be here in the way of opportunities. But I soon came across Youthline and when I met Stephen Bell, the chief executive, it just so happened he was looking for somebody with my experience and skills. It was a short ‘courtship’ and I joined within a matter of weeks. Youthline had gone through a lot of growth in Auckland and taken on some of the contract work for the Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Health and Education. Like a lot of NGOs it gets its income from a variety of sources including charitable donations, contracted work from Government and support from businesses. In the UK I worked for local authorities in social housing and with young people who were out of the education system but was drawn more to the charitable sector and inspired by how much volunteers were contributing to social action. I moved on to work for local and national organisations developing projects for young people and families, around housing and then into training and development of youth workers, social workers, counsellors and other professionals working with vulnerable young people and their families.
There are some emerging youth-related problems in New Zealand that are the same, but at an earlier stage, than they are in the UK. There are increasing numbers of young people who are casualties of family breakdown and trying to navigate the world independently – we’re seeing quite a lot of this, particularly on the Hibiscus Coast, and expect to see more. Those young people don’t know which way to turn, whether they can finish their education or employment, or how to live independently. Sometimes this situation arises because families are experiencing difficult and challenging behaviours from young teens and the only way forward seems to be that the young person lives outside the family home. It’s a challenging group to work with because landlords don’t want young tenants, who they see as a risk. It seems that young people are growing up needing support around resiliency to help them navigate those adult years. Perhaps in the past there was a sense of extended family where a challenging young person could go and live somewhere else within that family, but these days the support system can be narrower. It takes a village to bring up a child and the way modern society is becoming – more fast-paced and insular – we’re forgetting that collective responsibility to nurture and support our young people. That’s where organisations like Youthline come in. People know about the helpline, which has grown over the past 20 years and is still predominantly volunteer run, but we’re doing more and more face-to-face work. We have a counselling team and also run an internship programme so that people training to become counsellors can use the work they do with Youthline towards their qualification. Counselling itself has become more accessible and also more recognised in modern society –it’s become more accepted that strength is actually about asking for help when you need it, rather than avoiding an issue. We have also had to develop that helpline service over time to make it more digitally available. Teenagers can use a free text service and there’s online chat through the website and social media like twitter and Facebook. Sometimes we will have volunteers specially working on text or chat. It’s to the credit of the community that the service is thriving.
I thought I had all the answers until my own children got to their teens – they are 16 and 13. It’s no easier for me than any other father, despite my training and experience. One advantage of being in this sector is having colleagues in the field, so I can get good advice but I’m definitely no more expert than any other parent. Finding as much time as you can to spend with your teens is crucial. I am on call for my role, but manage to make it work as best I can. I love watching my son play at Raiders and my daughter dance and as a family we escape to Wenderholm on summer weekends. My job is quite vocational and you have to love the work but we know that self-care is also important.
Working in the voluntary sector, I appreciate the impact that volunteering has in communities – there are so many things that wouldn’t happen if there weren’t hundreds and thousands of New Zealanders that give up their time. That includes things that my own kids enjoy such as rugby at Stanmore Bay Raiders and dancing classes in Orewa. In Youthline we’re lucky – because we work with young people, we get young people volunteering. St John is another service that seems to attract and retain young volunteers. However, I am in touch with a lot of local organisations and am aware that in many cases there aren’t enough people of all ages coming through to take the places of older volunteers. One thing that could make a difference is that in future, young people will need to show involvement in extracurricular activities, as well as qualifications and credits, in order to compete in the job market. The Duke of Edinburgh programme at local colleges includes an element of community work, but there’s a challenge to ensure that the spirit of volunteerism continues down through the generations. Perhaps it could be recognised in our education curriculum – an opportunity to ensure students get a chance to help out in the local neighbourhood? I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to help – there is a need to help them speak to the right people and provide mentoring and assistance to get them into a role. In a minute those young people will be the decision makers and the future of the emerging community around here.
I’ve just connected with Orewa Community Enterprises to see how Youthline can get into supporting local young people and help find ways for organisations to attract younger people as well as what services we can collectively offer for young people. I want to grow youth development and counselling on the Coast. There is already some great work going on, but where there’s a need and an opportunity to develop those connections I’d be keen. It’s about bringing some of our counsellors here – at present there’s a little bit going on in the colleges but there’s room to do more. There’s a bit of a myth that all the work (and funding) for support services is in South Auckland. Every individual can need a hand at different times when they’re vulnerable, so it shouldn’t be a postcode lottery. We need to have services in place for people at times when they need them. There are families that we’re supporting from our Albany office who are desperate for help and while we recognise that we’re lucky to live in an area that’s fairly well catered for, there is also a lot of need.