31 May 2010

My Part in the Story

It's time for me to tell my story. I'm ready. It's been over ten years and it's time for me to share.

Many people have heard the story told by others. Some have heard it from me, in part.

But this is the whole thing, pretty much. Hold onto your hats, it's a long story but I hope you'll read it through... this is how a miracle came from nothing but a dream and a scared shy girl who dared to try...

The Miracle of CLS

Scene One: A darkened movie theatre, 1994. The movie is Once were Warriors, a New Zealand story about alcohol, brutality, abuse and tragic loss.

I watch it with tears streaming down my face. After it has finished I stand in the foyer, tears still streaming, oblivious to the crowds. Back at home, the tears keep coming. I am broken by this movie. It is real. I know it's real. Right now, tonight in my town, there are kids suffering this story. What can I do???

I get down on my knees and pray next to my couch, as the tears fall. "God I don't know how you could use me to help kids like that. I'm just a pakeha girl from a nice christian family; I have no training, no experience. Nothing that would make me the obvious choice - but if you can use me to reach kids like those, then please do it!"

With this fateful prayer the wheels for a miracle are set in motion...

Scene Two: The Mercury Theatre, 1995.
I am now the youth pastor at our church. Sitting on the carpeted steps after a youth event, a young girl is pouring her heart out to me. Her story is one of brokenness and abuse. She is 12 years old. Then comes those words: "You know that movie, Once Were Warriors? That movie is my life."

Something inside me clicks. I know that my prayer has been heard, and this girl is part of the answer to it. I still don't know how I can help, but it seems God is bringing broken kids across my path, just like I prayed.

Scene Three: The Youth Van, late 1996.
Our youth group is now filled with kids from broken backgrounds. So many times I have heard the identifying phrase "My life is Once Were Warriors"...

I still don't really know how to help them. I go to conferences, read books, ask other youth pastors... but mostly I just try to be there. Occasionally I have kids turn up on my doorstep, needing a safe place to stay. Often I cry at night and pray for answers: how can I help them??

It seems that midweek home groups, Saturday activities, Sunday church and the occasional camp is just not enough. They keep coming anyway. Nothing seems to change in their lives but they are always there, hanging out the front smoking and sometimes I wonder why??? Why do they come???

"Because its a safe place," one girl tells me.

In the van dropping some kids off home after youth group, I ask her, "How was school this week?"

"Dunno," she says, "I didn't go." Alarm bells go off. This kid has had the same answer for weeks... does she ever go to school???

"Why should I?" is her reply. "I already know I'm dumb. My mum tells me, my grandma tells me, my uncles tell me... why bother going to school just to prove what I already know?"

How do you reply to that??? She is 14 years old and never goes to school. What's more, she's not the only one.

She and her friends stay up late every night til the wee small hours. Tagging, clothes-lining (an alternative to shopping), drinking, sniffing paint. Where are their parents, you may well ask?

This girl's dad has never been around. Her mum had her young and has passed her on to various aunties and finally her invalid grandmother. Nobody cares what time she gets in. She has been to so many schools that the system has lost track of her. She never had a chance to learn to read and write properly so she truly believes she is dumb. She has been sexually abused by the boyfriends of various relatives during drunken parties. How do you help a kid like that????

Scene Four: The Church Offices, the following week.
I am in reception pouring my heart out to my good friend Val, who is  this girl's homegroup leader.

We have phoned up every place we can think of to try and find an alternative for this girl to get back into education. She's too young for all the options we found. She will not return to regular high school because she just can't cope there - she's reading at a six-year-old level.

What do we do??? we wonder.

Then those fateful words...

"Wouldn't it be great if we could start something? Something for kids who can't cope in school, who need extra help in a place where they know they are loved? We could have really great tutors, who they can relate to; they could learn in small groups so they wouldn't get lost in the crowd... we could pick them up and drop them off each day to make sure they get there... we could give them breakfast and lunch to make sure they aren't hungry and can learn... it could be creative! We could help them discover what they are good at, to build their confidence because they aren't dumb at all, they just got left behind...!"

We are excited now, our words and ideas tumbling out... and it could have stayed just that. Words and ideas. A pleasant dream for the future... one day...

Except that we take our idea right then to one of our pastors. We knock on his door and spill out our dream. And he says: "Go for it!"

He says, "Write down your ideas and come back to me tomorrow!"

He says, "What will you call it???"

And I blurt out the first name that pops into my head: "Creative Learning Scheme... CLS!" It just seemed to fit.

Scene Five: My flat, late at night.
The ideas just keep coming. I am writing down everything I can think of that we already have: People who could tutor subjects, drive vans, cook lunches... Resources we already have... a youth group van, an amazing theatre, a whole church family.

I figure we can cope with two days a week to begin with. We will get the kids writing a play. They will use maths skills to build sets and work out budgets. They will do lifeskills units about alcohol and drugs and sex (all the usual teenage stuff); some will get to act, some will learn lighting and sound... they will gain confidence, and at the end we will perform our play at church and it will all be wonderful...

No budget. No professionals. No full-time staff. Just use what we have...

Scene Six: Church Offices, late 1997.
Our first CLS course is over. Was it a success? I felt, no. We'd had lots of interest, plenty of kids turning up. We'd had some good moments. And the kids had mostly stuck it out and attended regularly. The outdoor education camp was great, getting these urban kids outdoors... But several "expert" youth workers I have co-opted in to help  have told me CLS "is set up to fail." Oooh that stings. One of them even told me these kids are beyond help...!!

Did we perform the play? No. The kids balked at the final hurdle, lacking confidence to actually succeed at something, even though all it needed was a final push. Did the kids enjoy CLS? Oh yes, and they want to come back next year. And bring their cousins and their neighbours and their friends who are also hanging around the streets doing nothing, going nowhere, getting up to mischief.

But not me. I don't want another year of this. I'm done. I feel like it failed. It didn't go like I'd planned. I want out. I even told our senior pastor that morning, "I don't think I'll run CLS next year. I don't think it's for me..."

I go back to my desk... and the phone starts to ring. Off the hook. Totally random people I had approached about CLS but hadn't heard from in months...

"Hi, I was just wondering how that CLS is going? I wanted to encourage you what a great project it is! We really need things like that in our community!" After about the fourth phone call I knew this was no coincidence. Somebody wanted CLS to carry on.

So I made Him a deal. "OK, God, I'll keep it going. But I want you to know that I feel like this is way beyond my expertise. I don't think I'm the right person for the job. But I'll set it up and keep it going until the right person comes along...OK?"

Later that week I am sitting in a youth meeting. The guy preaching turns to me and says, "I feel like God is wanting me to tell you, Who told you you weren't the right person? Who said you're not good enough? Not Him. Keep going!"

Eek. OK, God, You win.

Scene Seven: The Pavement Outside the Mercury, at the end of The Day from Hell, Mid 1998.
I am wrestling with one of my students - the girl who inspired me to start it all. She has a bag of paint for sniffing that I am trying to get off her... "Don't Simone, leave me! I don't want to hurt you!" she cries.
"Don't do this, Missy, give me the bag!" I sob. Silver paint splatters all over me. I am beyond caring.
The day started with a fight between students after we discovered drugs on one of them.

We've had to get tough on drugs. We'd tried the "we love you and won't give up on you no matter what" approach, so the kids have been taking advantage of our softy-softy ways and are basically abusing our kindness. So we've drawn a line in the sand: bring drugs and you're out.

Another student filled with righteous indignation attacks the drug-bringer. We take the drug-bringer home. But then a tutor discovers the kid who had been so righteously indignant at the drug-bringer sniffing paint with his mate in the girls toilets (they thought we wouldn't look there). They happened to be Missy's boyfriend and cousin. And they thought that paint didn't count as drugs.

It hurts me to tell them, sorry you're out, but we have laid down the rule! It won't mean anything if we don't stick to it.

After they leave things seem to settle down, so I take another student off to her anger-management counselling... but in the middle of her session I receive a phone call. "You'd better come back! Missy has locked herself in the toilet with a knife and she's threatening to kill herself!"

By the time I arrive she is outside sniffing. "If you kick them out, you'll have to kick me out to!" is her logic.

Then follows the wrestling... I get the paint off her and we retreat to our corners, each of us crying. This was not what I had in mind when I started this project! Our driver takes the other students home early, while I regroup with a couple of our volunteers.

I answer a knock on my office door and come face-to-face with a policeman. Oh yes. Just to top it all off one of the naughty little sniffers has decided that since he's missed the van ride home he'll break into the neighbour's car and find his own transport. She calls the cops, they arrive within minutes and collar him... I end my hideous day down at the Station standing in for his caregiver while the cops take his statement...

This is so far from what I had dreamed...

Scene Eight: Mid-1999. At CLS.
We survived the day from hell. We regrouped, prayed hard-out, got some better ideas, changed things up and continued on.

We are getting a name with Govenment agencies as a good place to bring hard-cases. I have secured funding from the Ministry of Education - enough to run one full centre with 12 students. But we stretch the money and have expanded to two centres, with a total of 24 students between them, one in South Auckland, one in the City.

I now have full-time staff - amazing dedicated people, who it is a joy to work with. We have two vans. We have experience behind us. We are seeing some success. Kids are leaving us going on to jobs or training courses.

Even kids we had to "kick out" have turned up later to apologise and tell us how we'd helped them. In the mornings heads bend over books, each student working at their own level on Correspondence English and Maths books. After a home-cooked lunch, there is sports, music, dance, art, drama... different options each term. The kids like coming and attend regularly (a miracle in itself). We are seeing changes in their attitudes and confidence.

At the end of each term the kids who've worked hard are rewarded with a Trip away - whitewater rafting, a trip to the snow, ice-skating, a Ball. There's even a Marae trip for the whole group to Rotorua: hot pools, go karts, a concert...

Quiet kids, who wouldn't look you in the eye when they arrived have started to shine. Their parents come to see them get their certificates at end-of-term prizegiving and can't believe that their "naughty kid" is "being good". It opens up their eyes; helps the way they see their kids.

Of course there are still struggles and disappointments. But this is much more like what I'd dreamed.

Final Scene: January 2000, Somewhere in South Auckland.
I run crying from the building. It's my last day. A young boy comes out and pats me on the back, "Don't cry Miss, we're gonna be OK..."

I know it's time for me to leave. I'm not sad. There's other things going on. The strain of the last three years has taken its toll, but I don't know it yet.

But as I leave CLS is in good heart. We have four centres, with eight amazing full time staff and funding in place for all of them. We have a good reputation; our students are making progress, CLS is making a difference. I've done what I can do. It's up to others now. Others with different skills can take it on to where I never could.

Ten Years On...

CLS keeps going from strength to strength. It's now the largest alternative education programme in the country, with around 50 full-time staff. Now our church also runs Youth Training courses for older teenagers, so when students graduate CLS, these courses follow on and help place them in employment.

CLS has the government contract for providing the Education programmes in Auckland's youth prison.

The CLS director (a great guy) meets often with MPs and Ministers; he rubs shoulders with the movers and shakers in government because people are amazed at what CLS is achieving.

The outstanding thing about CLS is that it has remained right at the heart of our church. Most of the amazingly dedicated staff are part of the church. The church welcomes the kids in and embraces them. They feel right at home.

Hundreds of teenagers' lives have been turned around. Many of them have found Jesus; he's the one who has healed their hurts and brokenness. A mere programme can't do that, no matter how clever it is. Many of these kids are now living lives and succeeding in ways that they would never have dreamed. (Click here for the CLS website)

So watch out. If you say, "Use me, God!" He will take you at your word... Be careful what you pray for...!

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Jen said...

bless you Simoney
thanks for sharing
God is awesome

hope said...

amazing. inspiring. encouraging.

God is good, all the time.

Sophie said...

Simoney, its so amazing that you and Val had this vision way back then and now look at it. Its extraordinary what God has done through you..

PaisleyJade said...

So exciting to see where a simple 'but what can I do' led to when offered up to God.

You are an inspiration Simone - and continue to be!!

Gail said...

You know I love this.x

Tylaine said...

Wow Simoney what an inspiration! That is just amazing what you started for those kids with God's help. :) God Bless you!

Unknown said...

I had no idea that this was part of your story! That is amazing Simone... and such a testimony of how God can use us if we let Him. Awesome! Thank you for sharing this part of your life.

Rachel Kate said...

what an amazing story. thanks for sharing and encouraging people with it

Angela said...

Now that wasn't too long at all. ;)

LIESL said...


Anonymous said...

Hey Simone, what an amazing journey... you should be so proud. I know it took a huge personal toll but you saw something that was wrong and you did something to make it better.... lots of poeple see the need but don't or can't offer themselves to change things. You're an awesome writer... I felt quite emotional reading about the kids and their pain... it's SO wrong that little kids should gave to go through so much.

Neetz said...

Awesome! Praise God for people like you...

Widge said...

I left a comment yesterday but it didnt work for some reason!!

anyway, AMAZING story Simone. Truly inspiring. How cool God worked so quickly after giving you the vision!!

Anonymous said...

you are a special lady
that part where you are letting god know that you are not the right one for the job and then that man lets you know that in fact you are...well...it brought me to tears
I love this story because it is so real, so very very real
there is so much brokenness and it takes more than saying Jesus loves you to make it right...it really does take blood sweat and tears
bless you for going out on a limb Simoney you can feel proud of what you started with this program
you have done a great thing!!!
love and light

Johnny said...

Wow what a great legacy you've left Simone. I am so encouraged there are people out there like yourself who gave kids who might have never had a chance what was most likely their first encounter of love and encouragement of their lives. And you listened to God when it was tough. What a story. Thanks for sharing...

Margs said...

Amazing! A legacy left when most of us are still trying to carve something out of this life. Thanx for your brave obedience hon, I know there is more to come!!

Tanya said...

*wipes tears* Wow Simone - you did it, You have written it down for the world to see, to be inspired by, to be encouraged, to be stirred and motivated . I know you consider yourself just an ordinary woman, but I really am in awe of you, your transparency and honesty in telling blog by blog, your story! Love you, Tanya xx

Dawn said...

WOW!! What an AMAZING journey! I have a feeling the big man upstairs isn't done with you yet.
Thanks for stopping by my blog for my SITS day!

Shell said...

Wow, what an amazing thing that you started! It takes a brave person to be the one to start something like this!

And look what your dream has accomplished!

Jeannie, Jane, Angel, Mommy, etc.. said...

Simply amazing.

Real Live Preacher said...

Wow! I'm going to feature this piece tomorrow at the High Calling blog site. You have a great blog. I know because I've read thousands of them over the years. Keep writing from your heart and with your passion.


Heidi said...

Wow! What an amazing story that you told SO well!

Ann Kroeker said...

Amazing, inspiring story, including the realistic struggles internally and externally.

I'm glad Gordon/Real Live Preacher featured this at HCB today.

Snowcatcher said...

Thank you for sharing your story. Hopefully this will inspire and empower others who may think they have nothing to give. But mostly, thank you for what you have done.

Duane Scott said...

Wow... Absolutely WOW.

So proud of you.

Victoria said...

Wow! God is good!

Janis Van Keuren said...

The Lord used your willing heart and His grace to bring enormous change to many children's lives--not just the ones that you directly touched but the ones that continue to be touched by this work.
I am so glad I was directed here by High Calling Blogs.
The Lord bless you even more.

Sarah Ashley said...

Wow Simone im so glad you were obedient to God in your decision to start CLS. Its an amazing ministry and soooo many young peoples lives have been changed through it. They still love coming and i love being apart of this journey. Like you i to have felt so inadequate over the years ive been a CLS tutor and have shed many tears but God has been faithful and looked after me with good support and friends. Just want to say thank you so much and you are AMAZING!!!! I loved reading this :)

amy in peru said...

This is so amazing and inspiring. God is SO good. Oh why do we ever doubt His greatness?! This is amazing. I love that God used 'little ol' you' :) oh how valuable we all are to Him.

amy in peru

jacksta said...

Wow, you are awesome! I love how your obedience has left such an awesome legacy.

Anonymous said...

WOW. What an incredible story - you are quite something Simone. What an amazing accomplishment and an amazing example of how faith and a good heart can achieve so much. Funny that I am finding more proof of how GOOD God is on your blog that what I found in all the years I went to church! It must have been so hard to say goodbye - your heart was clearly in the place. But how fantastic to know that you have left behind such a wonderful legacy - I am certain that you would have had a positive impact on all those children, whether you saw it or not. So well done!

Renee said...

Oh wow - there are so many treasures to find amongst the 'pages' of your blog. What an incredible journey you have been on! You should feel so proud of yourself for all you have achieved - what a special lady you are. What a legacy - to have changed even one persons life would be big enough, but I am sure you have left a huge handprint in the lives of many. So so special.

PS - I've just been looking on the website and watching your famous face in the 'our story' video!

Jana said...

{tears} What a moving story. I bet there will be a ton of kids in heaven because you were faithful.
xo Jana

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