Popular Ōtara youth hub about more than just homework help

From Checkpoint, 6:15 pm on 24 June 2021

A South Auckland youth hub is seeing an increase in its roll as students seize an opportunity to catch up on their studies.

Many were among the most affected by Covid-19's interruptions to schooling - with limited access to Wi-Fi and space.

Others had to take on work to support their families.

Bubblegum is working to fill the education gap by offering tutoring, and even haircuts. But it is much more than getting help with homework or a trim.

F.O.R.M.A.T. is Bubblegum's new tutoring workshop. It runs three afternoons a week, and is a space for students to get study help, have a chat, a bite to eat, and most importantly check in with each other.

"Some of them didn't have proper devices, and yes some schools did provide devices but there was also that barrier of whether [students] actually had proper internet to connect in," youth development lead Sonia Masoe told Checkpoint.

For some students, completing assessments was the least of their worries.

Masoe said many needed to prioritise looking after family, especially if parents were essential workers and younger siblings or grandparents needed to be cared for at home.

"Some of them actually had to leave school to go and provide for their families as well."

The workshop matches students with a tutor who is either studying at university or working in an area like history, science, English or maths, to help tackle assessments - but their main job description is to help students let off some steam and leave with a smile.

Students grab a snack as they study at Ōtara's Bubblegum youth hub.

Students grab a snack as they study at Ōtara's Bubblegum youth hub. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Year 12 student at McAuley High School Mandy Iese has her sights set on getting through this year after stop-start study under Covid-19 lockdowns.

She found it refreshing having someone who had been through it all before

"Having our mentors who have passed Level 2 is really helpful. They know what they're doing and they can guide us all the way."

There is no official roll call but numbers are growing, and the hub is looking for more tutors to meet demand.

Tutor Saraphina Teariki was working with student Hope Lautua on her history assessment due the next day.

"As I kept coming here I saw how it made a difference in my education, and how more focused I was – taking this programme and being mentored by someone who can help me throughout it and push me, motivate me. It made a big difference."

She said it was tough at home under lockdown, with several siblings trying to learn, and limited access to Wi-Fi.

Just across the carpark is another of Bubblegum's initiatives, combining culture and mental health with a haircut.

Barbershop BTB Cuts are offering free or discounted trims to locals in need of a cut and conversation.

Taka Vuni is the man behind the scissors. He said it was much more than a haircut, it was about creating a safe place for young men to speak.

"For us it's just creating this energy. We get our community come in feeling down and looking down. If we can just help them leave here feeling good, hopefully that's one step to where they want to be."

Their biggest customers are high school students. He said most of them had sacrificed their education to support family during lockdowns and job losses.

"Year 11 to fresh out of high school, having to leave school and having to work, maybe in jobs that they didn't want to do, but just to support their families. That's what we've seen out here."

That had taken a huge toll on their mental health, so they were encouraged to talk things through from one brother to another.

"It's a huge change, especially maybe having dreams and aspirations of being something else or wanting to be somewhere and having to give it up to look after home first. It's huge," Vuni said.

The bonds formed in the barbershop are so strong they have built up a list of regulars who are often coming in, even if they're not quite due for another trim.