Neo Kenny – helping rainbow youth connect

For Youth Week Aotearoa, Alice Mander interviewed young volunteers to learn about their work, motivations, and observations about volunteering in up and coming generations. Neo and Alice sit down to talk about healing, burnout, and what volunteering can mean for young rainbow people.

From our conversation, Neo Kenny (ia/he/him) strikes me as one of those unique advocates who maintains both an unapologetic strength with a unique kindness and generosity of spirit. This makes him the perfect person for his current role as Volunteer and Community Engagement Coordinator at InsideOUT Kōaro, as well as volunteering as a leader of peer support groups at The Peer Tree. 

In what’s becoming a theme in these stories, Neo’s volunteering journey began as a beneficiary of the work of these organisations. InsideOUT Kōaro’s vision is for all rainbow young people in Aotearoa New Zealand to have a sense of safety and belonging in their schools and communities. For instance, InsideOut helped Neo establish a Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) at ia’s High School. The Peer Tree offers a community for young people with experience of mental health distress, and Neo began his journey with them as a group member. “I guess I just sort of wanted to give back… or help people in the way that I have been helped. I think that’s why I started both, and then I just fell in love with all of it.”

Now, as a volunteer coordinator himself, Neo has a unique insight into what it means to volunteer for young rainbow New Zealanders.  “The number one reason that people give when volunteering, and when I ask them if they have a goal, is that they want to connect with the community more. I think that really speaks to the isolation that can come with being rainbow.” 

Certainly, for youth with marginalised identities, community can be hard to come by. One study found that one in six rainbow youth did not feel safe at school, with two-thirds reporting suicidal thoughts in the last year. A large number have reported moving towns or cities in order to feel safer as a young queer person. Despite this, the same study found high levels of pride in rainbow youth, with three in five participants reporting that it is important for them to be politically active in the rainbow community. 

Activism and volunteering

When asked whether rainbow youth may have unique motivations to volunteer, Neo reflected that volunteering as a rainbow person is often “very personal”. He says, “I think a lot of the time for young people these days, activism and volunteering is closely connected… In a way, volunteering is more motivated by worry. Most people who are volunteering, for instance for climate related causes, are doing it out of worry, because the climate is screwed. A lot of people will be like, ‘Oh I see things are getting bad for this group, I’m going to help where I can.” 

Neo believes that volunteering within your community can be a strong source of empowerment, but that the sense of urgency and responsibility which comes with it can carry its own risks. “I always say that it’s really hard to work as a volunteer or in a role that’s connected to who you are, because there’s a lot more chance for that emotional stuff to come up, and you really have to manage that for yourself,” Neo explains. 

Burnout and wellbeing

Burnout and its debilitating effects is something most young volunteers can relate to, especially those who work in more political or advocacy-based roles . When you’re emotionally and personally connected to the community you volunteer for, it’s very difficult to create boundaries and stick to them. Every person you come into contact with reminds you of who you used to be, and your desire to give back can end with having nothing left to give. Not only is this harmful for individual volunteers, but also for the longevity of the causes or organisations they are giving time to. 

For Neo, it’s important to recognise the signs of burnout and recommends having plans in place should it come up. “I have a list of things that bring me comfort, like food I like, favourite TV shows, favourite movies… As well as having people who are willing to call you out when you are getting close to it [burnout]. I’m really bad at recognising it myself, so I outsource it.” Organisations can also do their part. For instance, InsideOUT Kōaro makes it clear to volunteers that “health comes first”, and allows volunteers to do as much or as little as they feel up for, with no minimum hour expectations. 

The solution to burnout is also societal. Both Neo and I have noticed that when we ask our friends how they’re doing – many of them youth volunteers themselves – their instinctive response is: “I’m good, really, really busy though!”. Being busy has almost become a source of pride in and of itself. “There needs to be an attitude shift towards being busy. Can you imagine, ‘How are you doing?’, ‘Oh, just chill’”, Neo laughs, “Whenever someone tells me that they’ve been doing nothing I think, ‘That’s awesome!’. Someone the other day asked how I was, and I said I was stressed. They said, ‘Me too… Actually, no I’m not. The thing I’m most stressed about is getting my library book back in time’. I’m like, that’s great! I love that for you.” 

If the personal is political, as the slogan goes, healing ourselves is just as much an act of rebellion as healing our communities. For both Neo and myself, volunteering has allowed us to turn parts of our identity, once stigmatised by society – whether that be gender diversity, experiences of mental distress, or disability – into a source of strength, and a way to help others like us. However, within that, Neo believes there is “always enough time to rest and take care of yourself”. This may be difficult for volunteers in advocacy based roles, in which the urgency of ‘the cause’ can seem bigger than ourselves. However, a movement can only be as healthy as the people within it. As New York Times columnist Tim Steider said, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” 

Ultimately, it was this potential healing power of volunteering that Neo wanted to end this interview on. “Volunteering can be life changing… I would be such a different person if I hadn’t had the volunteering opportunities that I’ve had, and I wouldn’t have a job! Or I would have a very different job. For me, volunteering has been a positive source of healing as well. 

“At times, when I maybe haven’t had anything else on, and I’ve felt depressed or whatever, having a space where I can actually go and materially help other people has been really important to me. There have been times where the thought of going to a peer support group and leading it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but once I get there, and I talk to people, and share what I’m going through, other people might say, ‘Oh, I’m going through that too’. The community connection, and being able to help people is something that is so important, so healing, and so therapeutic.”


Lauren Dewhirst: volunteering is her life blood

For Youth Week Aotearoa, Alice Mander interviewed young volunteers to learn about their work, motivations, and observations about volunteering in up and coming generations. In this story, Lauren and Alice discuss their experiences as young disabled volunteers.

As much as I love just sort of sitting back and watching the world around me, I think I’m someone who just really likes actually doing. I just want to be an active member of society, playing my part, and be able to give back to the people who have given me so much,” Lauren remarks, as she sits at her desk at Otago University where she has recently taken on the role of student advisor at the Disability Information and Support office. 

In the many years I have known and worked with Lauren, I can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve seen her sit back and simply watch the world around her. Our friendship is one of the many highlights of my own volunteering journey. We met as disabled tertiary students, volunteering our time to advocate for our community of disabled students in the tertiary education system. 

Lauren and Alice

In 2022, we became co-Presidents of the National Disabled Students’ Association, a predominantly volunteer organisation I established with the help of incredible advocates like Lauren two years prior. Together, we tackled individual universities and polytechs, worked with government departments and political parties, and helped build a national movement of disabled student advocates. To her new role, Lauren has brought her experience as leader and founder of the Otago Disabled Students’ Association, as well as her years of volunteer work with organisations like Hato Hone St John, GirlGuiding NZ, Scouts Aotearoa, and an ongoing eight year stint with the Otago University Students’ Association student welfare programme, Are You OK? As she says, “For me, personally, I reflect back on Lauren a few years ago, Lauren five years ago, Lauren ten years ago, volunteering has always been my life blood.” 

Cared for or carer?

At the heart of the disability rights movement is the belief that we aren’t disabled by our impairments, but by systemic barriers and attitudes which position disabled people as lesser citizens. The terms ‘volunteer’ and ‘charity’  may therefore be fraught for the disabled community, who are often positioned as mere recipients of care, as opposed to being strong individuals with a vast array of skills we can bring to the table. 

For Lauren, this definitely rings true: “I definitely have had to be careful what roles I put myself into because attitudes of some people can be hurtful, and it can be challenging if someone brings their own experiences or beliefs into a situation, but are misinformed, or haven’t spoken to me first. It’s like, ‘Oh no you can’t do that’, but have you asked if I can do that? Or did you discuss that with me first?’”. 

For young volunteers with a disability, attitudes can make or break the continuation of a volunteering journey. As Lauren explains, having a supportive team and environment which accepts and encourages her makes her want to work that little bit harder, reinforcing her mindset that, “I can do anything, or that I can do what I want to do”. 

Research into young disabled people’s experiences of volunteering is clear: disabled people who volunteer are more likely to have higher self esteem, and have a greater sense of wellbeing. However, while this evidence is valuable, little is often said about the benefits that the volunteering world receives from people like Lauren, and indeed myself. While Lauren would be slow to admit it – as a self confessed “humble kiwi”- her existence as not only a volunteer, but a disabled volunteer is invaluable. 

Having worked within the disability space and community for years now,  I’ve come to recognise a beautiful characteristic of disability culture: our delineation between ‘cared for’ and ‘carer’,  is frequently blurred. Not only does this welcome and encourage vulnerability, but it allows us to explore and recognise our own limitations. For Lauren, this means knowing that she can’t pour from an empty cup, ensuring she is well enough and safe before she helps others. She also thinks that this has encouraged others to start volunteering their own time. “It’s been nice to be able to help prove that you can do anything,” she says. 

Disabled people know how quickly you can go from being a volunteer, to being the person receiving help. Lauren tells a humorous story of being a first aid volunteer at a music festival, in which one of the security guards fainted from the heat. “Ironically,” she laughs, “he ended up in our tent sitting next to all the drunk people. Things like that can happen to anybody.” For disabled people we already know this; giving and receiving care is second nature. 

Passion and identity

Perhaps this is why both I and Lauren don’t completely relate to the term “volunteer”. My main motivation for doing unpaid work – which has typically been in the advocacy and campaigning space – is out of a passion and drive to address systemic barriers facing disabled people.  As a disabled person myself, to not do this work would feel wrong, somehow in conflict with my politicised identity as a disabled person. Lauren’s the same: “What makes me happy is being able to give back, being able to share my experiences, my knowledge, being able to make a difference, even being able to meet people, being involved in different conversations and decisions.” For people like Lauren, giving her time for organisations and causes she believes in is simply part of who she is. “It’s funny, the word ‘volunteer’… it’s like the word disabled! I wouldn’t necessarily walk around and say ‘Hi I’m Lauren and I’m disabled’ or ‘Hi I’m Lauren and I’m a volunteer’, but I’m both of those things! And it’s just part of who I am, I’m just being me and living my life and doing what I enjoy and what I want to do.” 

When asked what Lauren would say to people who think young people are disengaged with our communities, she had a succinct answer: “I would say that they need to look harder”. 

Ethan Tauevihi-Kahika: being there for rangatahi

For Youth Week Aotearoa, Alice Mander interviewed young volunteers to learn about their work, motivations, and observations about volunteering in up and coming generations. Ethan and Alice talk about the ripple effect of volunteering, as well as Ethan’s own journey with Youthline Aotearoa.

Ethan Tauevihi-Kahika is guided in life by a strong set of values. “Values are something that’s important to me, and service is my top value. For me, service means giving your time to others. If I can do that in some way, then I’ll do that, make a positive difference in someone’s life.” 

Ethan, who has whakapapa to Niue, Tonga and Denmark, says his volunteering journey started at a young age, watching his mother volunteer her time as a companion to the elderly at local rest homes, and being engaged in his high school’s community service programme. He credits these experiences as building “solid foundations” for his volunteer journey later in life, especially with Youthline. With volunteering being close to his heart, Ethan fully believes in “the kaupapa of volunteering, and the value people get out of it”. 

When Ethan was 15 years old, he was faced with the “lose-lose decision” of choosing which parent he wanted to live with. Feeling disappointed and alone at that moment, he gave Youthline a call, and discussed his situation with one of Youthline’s counsellors. “They were just so supportive and made me feel heard, and reassured me that things were going to be OK. That stays with me, even until today.”  The experience made him want to become that person for other rangatahi: “For me, it’s really about being that person that was there for me in my time of need, for other people’s time of need.” 

In 2019, he began volunteering with Youthline. Starting as a volunteer on the helplines, he eventually moved into paid employment as a member of their triage team, and as a facilitator for training programmes. “The way I see it is that I’m just giving back to my community, and giving back to those people that really need someone in those difficult moments.” Today, he volunteers on Youthline’s Youth Advisory Committee, providing a youth voice into the organisation’s strategic direction. He is also a Board member with Volunteering New Zealand

Connecting to rangatahi

For Ethan, being a volunteer with lived experience of being a client of Youthline allows him to build a better sense of connection to rangatahi who call him. “I think it reassures people that things are going to be OK as well, because people go through very similar struggles in life, not that everybody knows about it.” As he points out, this sense of connection and empathy is particularly important for Māori and Pasifika youth, who report higher levels of mental distress than Pakeha youth. In 2019 it was found that both Māori (13%) and Pasifika (12%) youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than Pakeha (3%). Being able to talk to people who can relate to you is integral, and Ethan believes that the more Māori and Pasifika rangatahi who are trained to have these difficult conversations, “the better our community will be, it’s like a ripple effect”. To meet this need, Ethan started to raise money to cover the training costs for Māori and Pasifika youth to become Youthline volunteers. “I didn’t want there to be a financial barrier when it comes to doing the training,” he says

Volunteering brings benefits

Ethan believes that the training and skills you attain through volunteering is not only good for the community, but also for the youth themselves. Volunteering, especially through Youthline, offers an avenue to “know about yourself, before helping others”. The benefits of volunteering seem particularly crucial in today’s environment, especially with the lingering impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Youthline, the pandemic and its ripple effect has brought issues that were not front of mind to the fore, and youth are bearing the brunt. It’s something Ethan has noticed: “Covid-19 has definitely impacted our young people… Young people were struggling before Covid-19 and after Covid-19, it’s made it worse. Some people don’t even want to go out or go to school because of their social anxiety.” 

Volunteering in organisations like Youthline can be an antidote for our youth, both by giving them the skills to help each other but also themselves. However, as Ethan reflected, volunteering today is becoming harder, especially as youth are having to contend with other responsibilities and financial needs. According to a 2021 survey, one third of young people reported that they or their family worry about paying for at least one essential item, and this burden was higher for rangatahi Māori, Pacific and disabled youth. If young people are increasingly worried about putting food on their tables, are the barriers to volunteering simply getting too high to overcome?

Work volunteering balance

Ethan believes it is still possible for youth to balance volunteer opportunities with other responsibilities. Ethan suggests that finding paid employment that utilises the skills you develop in volunteering helps to recognise the value of it. “Volunteering benefits not only the people I talk to on the Helpline, but it also sharpens my tools and skills, which will only benefit my employer.” Ethan explains, “I guess my advice would be to somehow incorporate it into your everyday work.” 

Valuing the work of youth volunteers is critical, and also important in encouraging disengaged youth to get involved in their communities. When asked what he would say to the people who think that young people are disengaged with their community, Ethan responded, “Our young people have to see some sort of value in the community for them to be engaged. If they see no value in it, if I see no value in it, then they probably won’t do it.” 

Māori and Pasifika youth have been found to be less likely to feel that the community views youth positively. In encouraging youth to engage, perhaps older generations and organisations need to begin by re-evaluating their own attitudes and preconceptions. Ethan agrees that the better question is not whether youth are disengaged with their communities, but why they might be. 

Ethan now works as a Kaiarahi Family Court Navigator, supporting families going through the family court process or considering doing so. He gives credit to Youthline and the training he received there for his current position. “That’s definitely helped with my mahi with the Ministry of Justice, utilising those skills everyday.” In sticking closely to his value of serving others, Ethan has been able to leverage his volunteering opportunities in a way which has opened other doors to him. In doing so, he’s able to fulfil his life’s purpose – being there for people when they need someone the most.

Kura Kai brings communities together

Kura Kai provides meals to 38 high schools across the motu and their kaupapa is a simple one – volunteers including youth fill freezers in secondary schools with healthy meals for rangatahi, their whānau and others in need.

One high school that is doing an amazing job is Katikati College, which has been a partner Kura Kai school for two years.   Head girl, Isla Willacy says:

“Here at Katikati College, our Kura Kai programme has quickly become a centre for community connection. Our three freezers have the capacity to hold around 600 meals, and they are always kept full thanks to contributions from student and community volunteers.

“The production and delivery of the meals themselves creates a strong sense of kotahitanga felt at our community cook ups and in interactions with the different groups that contribute resources and help us to distribute the meals made, as well as pantry staples and personal care items, to those in need. As a result, we’re able to support many families in our kura, as well as those in emergency housing, homeless people and vulnerable elderly.

“As a student volunteer, I came away from my first cook up with a replenished sense of connection with my community and with the other volunteers.  From kotahitanga to manaakitanga, Kura Kai brings our community together”

Youth can easily volunteer to cook or run fundraising initiatives for Kura Kai to support the charity and the uptake is varied from Scouts and Youth groups to students cooking at home.

Kura Kai General manager, Marie Paterson says, “One of our key pou (pillars) is empowering our youth.  We want to encourage the practice of manaakitanga in our rangatahi and teach them the value of caring for their community.  By volunteering at a young age, it teaches important life skills.  For some youth, they just simply aren’t aware just how tough it can be for some families.  It teaches awareness and empathy.”

Student volunteer Jasmine shares her volunteering story

Who am I?

My name is Jasmine. I am 18 years old and am originally from Hong Kong, where I finished middle school. I moved into New Zealand two years ago, and I am currently a Wellington Girls College student. I volunteered for Sport WellingtonMary Potter Hospice and Conservation Volunteers New Zealand for the past few months.

I found these volunteer opportunities on Seek Volunteer website. They display all types of positions and related information on their website. I contacted the manager to volunteer for these organisations. Originally it was for the CV and award for the Student Volunteer Army program, but gradually I enjoy doing volunteering jobs.

What did I do for volunteering?

The one I currently volunteer for is Mary Potter Hospice. I worked there for three hours a week on the weekends. I enjoy organising the merchandises and maintaining the store cleanliness. I sometimes in charge of checking out for customers.

I also volunteered for Sport Wellington by joining the Round The Bay 2021. My job was to give necessary help to runners who felt unwell when they passed the finish line. When someone fell down on the floor or looked unconformable, we approached to check if first aid is needed. I also in charge of maintaining the finish line order to ensure people follow the right way. And sometimes give the runners a hand if they need it! I feel like being able to help someone when they need it and also feel the inspiration for achieving something.

What did I gain from volunteering?

I think one of the best parts of volunteering is making new friends and building connections. I used to know friends only in school, but ever since I worked as a volunteer, I know people from different backgrounds. And I even make some wonderful friends of different ages and diverse perspectives. We are still connecting to each other after the volunteer experience. The way volunteering brought us together was just fantastic.

Another part of what I love about volunteering is skills learning. When I worked for Mary Potter Hospice in an op shop, I encounter all kinds of customers; I learned to face different customers in a retail setting. And I get to learn how to do the checkout. I think it would definitely be helpful for my life and my career in the future. It gives me a chance to challenge myself in social interaction.

Lastly, I think volunteering is a great way to contribute to society. As I worked for Conservation Volunteers New Zealand, it really makes me think about what I am doing. I sometimes worked in Mount Victoria and Island Bay. We are actually doing something to protect the environment; we did the weeding and removed the harmful plants for the trees. By doing that, I feel like actually helping this place.

I will definitely keep doing volunteer jobs in the near future. As well as  retail, customer service, environmental protection, I want to try new things in different fields. And keep learning from the experience, improving society and myself!

Celina Huang
Social Media Specialist
Volunteering New Zealand

Sharing laughs, leadership and life skills

My name is Jamie Gibbens. I am 21 and am originally from Hokitika, where I did Guiding as a girl from Pippins, which is for five- and six-year-olds, right through to Rangers, which is for 12- to 17-year-olds. I moved to Christchurch in 2016 to attend university and become a primary teacher. I graduated last year, and this year started my Masters of Education.

I’m leading a group of Brownies, who are aged between seven and nine. I teach them new skills, games, what they can do in their community, and about other cultures around the world. One thing that has stood out is seeing the girls’ enthusiasm towards learning new things. Seeing them enjoy the activities I enjoyed when I was a Brownie myself is also pretty cool.

What I love about empowering girls and young women is encouraging them to use their new skills for initiatives such as community action, and developing their confidence and leadership skills.

One of my favourite memories from my Brownie group here in Christchurch was seeing the confidence development in one of my girls. She got really nervous reading her mihi to the group one night and broke down a bit — but a year later, the same girl not only played the flute in our talent show in front of all the group, plus their family members (a much bigger group!), but she won first place! When I asked her to tell the group about her visit to the Guides, I couldn’t stop her talking.

We often tell jokes and act silly sometimes at Brownies, so there is usually a lot of laughs, which is all part of the fun!

Jamie Gibbens
Girl Guiding New Zealand

Volunteering might not lead to pirate’s treasure — but there are plenty of other rewards

My name is Hannah, a born and bred Southlander and teacher aide. Being a volunteer for GirlGuiding is an incredible way to continue learning and give back to the community. The girls are hilarious — they constantly make me laugh, but also help me to see things in a completely different way, which keeps me learning. I love being a role model for the girls, teaching them valuable life skills, as well as teamwork and leadership skills. The GirlGuiding Programme is amazing and it’s super easy to follow and implement. You are provided with all the training to develop the skills you need.

Last term we introduced the girls to a part of Southland that they had never seen before and explored a wild cave system. The caves were cool, dark and mysterious, and although we didn’t find a pirate’s treasure or even a hibernating bear, the girls (and grown ups alike!) saw and experienced things that stimulated their imaginations and curiosity about the natural world. The girls haven’t stopped talking about the experience since, and I imagine it will be something everyone will remember for a long time.

What I found to be biggest reward about volunteering is it enables you to make a difference in the lives of others, gain confidence and self esteem, feel valued and part of a team, while gaining new skills, knowledge and experiences. The decision to volunteer has been a great one!

Hannah Ralston

Girl Guiding New Zealand