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A Young Commonwealth

pictureThe Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award has a presence in more than 140 countries worldwide and, as its Secretary General, I get the opportunity to meet some of the amazing young people and adults who are involved.   Many of the countries I visit are members of the Commonwealth, a family of 53 nations. It includes some of the world’s largest nations, like India, and some of the world’s smallest, like Grenada.  The Head of the Commonwealth is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, so, naturally, there’s great interest in the work of the Award, as it was founded by her husband, HRH Prince Philip.   There are Award participants in almost every Commonwealth country.  Indeed, we’re currently working to get the Award going in the Commonwealth’s newest member, Rwanda.

Members of the Commonwealth have chosen to designate 2015 as “A Young Commonwealth” year.   “A Young Commonwealth recognises the capacity, contribution and potential of young people, who play a vital role at the heart of sustainable development and democracy,” Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma has said.

Throughout the Commonwealth, young people, through their Award activities, are having a real and lasting positive impact on their local communities.   But that impact is particularly apparent in places where participation is by young people considered to be at risk or marginalised in society.   That’s why Prince Edward, several years ago, created a Special Projects fund to extend the reach of the Award to just such groups.   Every project is subject to careful appraisal before money is granted, as well as six-monthly reports and evaluation visits.

One such project has been working in New Zealand.   Kawerau, on the country’s North Island, was once a thriving industrial town. Founded in the 50s to house workers at a new paper mill, the town reached peak population and employment levels in the early 80s.

Since then, however, waves of job losses have left it grappling with high unemployment and a range of related social problems. Crime and anti-social behaviour have crept up, and the town has one of the highest rates of dependency on state benefits in the country.

Young people, perceived by some as a symptom of the town’s increasing economic problems, are seeing local services cut and are struggling to find jobs. The desperation of some, particularly young Maori men, is evidenced by Kawerau having the highest youth suicide rate in New Zealand.

Last year, I spent time with New Zealand’s Youth Affairs Minister, Nikki Kaye.  She told me, “Kawerau is an area of focus for the government and we want to see better outcomes for young people who live there.

“There have been difficulties for young people in this community and it is important to be able to give them positive opportunities to contribute to their community and show leadership.”

Keesha was able to participate in the Award because of Special Projects funding.   She tells her own story so much better than I can:

“Ko Ramaroa te maunga

Ko Whirinaki te awa me te whenua

Ko Hokianga te moana

Ko Matai Ara Nui te marae

Ko Te Hikutu te hapu

Ko Ngapuhi te iwi

Ko Matawhau te waka

Ko Kupe te tangata

“My geneology is my sense of belonging, my connection to the land.  Through my ancestors I have a sense of identity, a history woven over time and space and I stand comforted in their presence.

“Kia ora, The Award is changing my life.

“I am just an ordinary 14 year old Maori girl living in an extraordinary town called Kawerau.  It is the third smallest town in New Zealand but has the highest welfare dependency.I live with my grandparents and my mum and I attend Tarawera High School.

“I have been a participant and assistant with Blue Light, a national police initiative where we take youth of the town on fun excursions.  This involvement has enabled me to complete the service section of the Bronze Award.

“My philosophy in volunteering is that if you can affect positive change in the life of one person it may positively affect generations.

“One of the major issues facing some of our young people in Kawerau is that the environments they roam in do not provide them with a high level of positive engagement.  Common pastimes are involvement in drugs, alcohol, truancy and gang activities for youth as young as 12 years of age.

“Bianca Ranson of Potiki Adventures was invited to talk to the youth of Kawerau about The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.  None of us had ever heard about it before.  The photos of the presentation showed exciting outdoor activities.

“I thought this looks fun! Particularly the kayaking.

“I was one of 66 youth to put their name forward and was lucky enough to be one of 12 selected to participate.

“The Award is changing my life in such an amazing way.

“The skill, service and physical recreation sections have allowed me to understand the importance of consistently participating in activities.  I realise that by committing to something over a period of time, it is inevitable that I will get better at it.

“The Adventurous Journey section is where I have gained the most personal development.  I completed 2 physically challenging overnight trekking expeditions around the mountains and lakes that surround my town.  I am in no way the fastest walker in my group however I learnt that by pacing myself and trusting in my group, we would all make it there together.  I learnt to build relationships and friendships with the people in my group and we created a bond of solidarity required to complete the challenge.  My hope is that by learning how to create these relationships now as a young person, myself and my peers will be able to build strong relationships within our community.  Respect one another and put our differences aside to reach the common goal of improving the future for the young people of our town.

“The Award has given my peers something new and positive to put their time and energy into by engaging them in positive activities rather than destructive ones.  Activities they look forward to and get excited about.  I think that anything positive they can be involved in is a great thing for them and for our community.  I am grateful The Award is something available to me and my peers now and for the future.

“The Award will help me plan for my future as it is paving the way for the development of the skills I need to be successful in life.  I want to continue with the Silver and Gold Award and I am looking forward to the challenges ahead.

“Tena koutou katoa.”



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