by YVONNE BALDOCK on 7 OCTOBER 2015
Rotorua youth worker Maraea Pomana knows she can build a much better relationship with kids on the basketball court than she can sitting across a desk.
“Young people can meet me in my office and we will slowly get to know each other. But when you’re playing sports with them they’re always going to be more relaxed and open.”
Maraea is Youth Service Co-ordinator for Te Waiariki Purea Charitable Trust but has spent the past three years helping establish FreeParking in Rotorua – a programme designed to fill four different youth spaces in the city with free sports and activities.
“I always view FreeParking as a tool to have contact with young people in a natural setting,” Maraea says.
“It creates a safe place for kids to connect with someone who cares about them, and other young people, in a fun atmosphere. I can name many cases where FreeParking has changed kids’ lives. They’ve got someone in their community at the grass roots level who they can tell anything to, and who they know will always be available.”
FreeParking is available every weekday afternoon in Fordlands, Te Koutu, Eastern Suburbs and Western Heights.
The programme is a Rotorua Lakes Council initiative to support communities. Council has contributed over $400,000 worth of skate park equipment across the four locations to help provide local youth with a range of free activities close to home.
Co-ordinators are employed to run each FreeParking space and organise games and activities such as basketball, volleyball, touch rugby and sausage sizzles.
“When we first started we had a really good sound system so it was like the pied piper… we played good music and kids would come along and suss it out,” Maraea recalls.
Each FreeParking session will typically attract between 20-50 teenagers. “The most we had on one afternoon at Western Heights was 114 young people. It was just nuts.”
Maraea says the initiative was a great way to bring youth together and build friendships and trust within a community. “The kids who come know it is a safe place and they get to know each other really well. It creates a really good community atmosphere.”
BayTrust has just approved a $30,000 grant to help continue paying FreeParking co-ordinators for the rest of this year and into 2016.
Rotorua Lakes Council’s community engagement and events advisor, Christine Hutchinson, applied for the funding on FreeParking’s behalf. “This grant makes a huge difference to whether or not the programme continues. We’re absolutely thrilled with the news,” she says.
“The programme is now in a position to be delivered ‘for the community by the community’. Rotorua Lakes Council will now take a governance role to support the four communities’ delivery and capability to run the programme.”
Christine says FreeParking is also a wonderful way to identify future leaders.
“The co-ordinators can see who is a good role model. They’re taking them under their wing and getting them to help deliver the programme. Suddenly they become young leaders so it’s having a snowball effect. The co-ordinators are mentoring and helping these young ones as they come through. It’s wonderful to see.”
As a result, Christine says local teenagers are more engaged at school and are more likely to join sports teams and youth cadet programmes.
“Even though it’s a small programme, it’s making a huge impact on these kids’ lives.”