As 100 bikers arrived in Featherston last month to rally against teen suicide, our youth were there to manaaki them, and the whole community got in behind them in support. Yet only a couple of years ago, the youth were the talk of the town – but the talk was hardly positive.
Alan Maxwell, the diocese’s youth development worker for the Wairarapa, is based in Featherston, and he speaks of the transformation that has occurred in the town in just a short time. “When I first arrived, the business and community network I was part of spoke at length about the youth problem in the town – but none of them had actually spoken to the youth. The first thing I did was I walked down to the skate park and talked to the kids. I got a completely different perspective than the one I had.”
Alan says the youth were perceived as being disengaged and uninterested, but when he spoke with them, they told him that the lack of communication coupled with the obstacles facing them made them feel unwelcome, and thus, they withdrew. “Featherston youth face a lot of physical barriers,” says Alan. “There’s no employment options for youth, so if they want to get a job they have to travel somewhere, but there’s no public transport, so they need a car to get around, but because they can’t get jobs, they can’t get the money to buy a car.” Combined with the pressures of uncertain economic times and rising housing prices, life is not always easy in the small community.
Faced with such a challenging situation, Alan’s first step on arriving in Featherston two years ago was to simply offer a place for young people to come to. He was quite surprised when youth group numbers went through the roof in a matter of weeks: “I wasn’t prepared for the hunger for a safe space!” Thankfully, he says, the church welcomed some new families and there were more adults available to help.
Over time, a culture of belonging, acceptance and purpose for formed. More youth groups were formed across the region, and they began to gather in their clusters as a way of developing a sense of communal identity. Eventually, the young people began seeing needs in the community and actively participating – from wetlands restoration projects to cleaning up overgrown areas around the community – and as they identified their own needs, they were able to develop courses that would help them gain new skills.
“Every community organisation is connected in Featherston,” Alan says. As his relationship grew with the young people of the town, so did the fruit of his work, and so did the number of people who knew about him. Soon, he was receiving requests for help or advice from other community organisations wanting to engage with young people. The secondary school principal, having seen the transformation in the school’s students, contacted him to get him involved, and a local District Councillor commented on the positive impact of the youth groups on the community. Even a lady stopped him in the supermarket: “I was standing in SuperValue with a block of cheese and a bottle of milk, and this lady who doesn’t even belong to the church asked me to pray for her daughter in Aussie!”
Becoming an integral part of the community certainly played to Alan’s strengths. “I guess that’s the ‘connector’ strength in me – I can just see that this is connected to that, and I’m able to see how things fit together.” Having seen the various needs for young people in the town, Alan realised a need for a specific venue that could address some of the obstacles facing them – a place to gather, to learn, and to serve. Once funding was secured, Boundary Road was born, and it was here that the youth were able to provide hospitality to the incoming bikers.
RATS, or Riders Against Teen Suicide, was formed in 2012 and has started to spread from its origins in the north. The Wellington and Wairarapa RATS group travelled from Wellington on the 9th of September, taking in Featherston for lunch before travelling to Masterton for an afternoon rally. It was Featherston Community Board member, and motorcyclist, Mark Shepherd, who contacted Alan to ask if the youth could provide manaakitanga as the riders came through. The community response was fantastic, Alan says. Locals went hunting to provide the meat, the town’s butchers boned and stored it, and the youth group got together the night before the rally to prepare the dishes. Many in the community did some baking – and the tables were groaning under the weight of the delicious treats on offer. And all of this was a symbol of unity in Featherston that wouldn’t have been dreamed of just a few years ago.
For Alan, taking on the youth worker role was a huge sacrifice – “I left the job I loved, the house I loved, the church I loved… but that’s the calling, isn’t it? Bishop Justin said to me at the time: ‘you’re supposed to pick up your cross – not pick up your pillow!'” He has no regrets about moving his family to Featherston. Anyone who spends five minutes with him can tell that he is wildly passionate about Jesus and about the young people he serves. And clearly, his faith and passion is bearing amazing fruit.