24 September 2012

My Part in the Story (the Miracle of CLS)

This is the Story of how I was part of something Bigger Than Me. How I was part of the answer, how I took part in a Miracle. It's the story of a scaredy cat who pushed past her fears, took some risks and DID something. It cost me. But it was worth it.
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...

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. 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 sitting at 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 programme for the kids is going....CLS? 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 the dream...

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.

CLS is 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.

Twelve Years On...

CLS keeps going from strength to strength. It's now the largest alternative education programme in the country, with more than 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 is 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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