Kids who have nothing yet still want to learn - scenes of child poverty in NZ

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

OPINION: For many parents, the morning routine involves dragging slumbering teenagers from their beds, and coercing them out the door to school.

But in one part of Northland, the struggle is very different. There, some teenagers are waking up outside - shaking with cold after a night sleeping rough, bodies aching from the hard ground, tummies growling with hunger. Remarkably, they get up, and they go to school. Because despite everything, they want to learn. 

This is just one of many heartbreaking stories I hear in my role as KidsCan's programmes manager.

The school's principal had called to ask for help. We already provide them with shoes, raincoats and food - the basics children need to get to school ready to learn - but he had a special request. Could we provide soap? I wondered what was going on.  

I found a school doing much more than just teaching. The principal is doing his best to support around 20 students who are homeless, or living in houses with no hot water or power. They were arriving at school having not showered for days on end.

The school now has a roster for its showers so they can wash. We helped by providing a donation of shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste - items most of us take for granted. 

I wish this was an isolated example. I stopped in Kawakawa for no more than 15 minutes. In that time, I saw seven cars full to the brim with the families' 'lives' in them. Locals told me that is very much a norm these days. The campgrounds are full of others living out the winter in tents.

For those with a roof over their heads, there could be 20 people crammed into a three-bedroom house. For the kids, the result is broken sleep, poor personal hygiene, and hunger. 

They're scenes so foreign to many New Zealanders that the extent of the problem can be hard to grasp. I've learnt that the need is endless, the causes are complex, and there are no quick fixes. I've learnt not to judge parents - they are doing their best in situations most of us would struggle to cope with. 

The principals are heroes holding communities together. I've met a principal who is in at 6 o'clock every morning helping make breakfast for the kids. A principal who always leaves late - because for some kids, school is their safe place, and they are there long after the last bell goes. I get emails from them at 11pm, sorting supplies for their students. 

And then there are the kids. I hear what they go through on a daily basis and think a lot of us adults wouldn't be able to cope as well as they do. 

The majority always have smiles on their faces - they are positive, resilient, and amazingly talented. I actually find this quite hard. It is only us looking from the outside who understand what difficult situations these children are in.

They don't know they may not have the opportunities that others take for granted. But I'm proud to be one of the people trying to give them a better future. 

- Karleen Edmonds manages the needs of the 718 schools the KidsCan supports nationwide, making sure they are getting the essential items the charity provides.

To help KidsCan make a real difference, sign up to support a Kiwi kid.