Celebrating Aspire Article

Since 2015, The Salvation Army has been partnering with local schools across Aotearoa to help build stronger and more resilient young people through the Aspire programme.

‘There are certainly a few “out there” stories of Aspire graduates going on to play in the NRL and the like, but on the whole, the programme’s success sits within the stories of ordinary kiwi young people who are making good life choices and genuinely contributing back to their whānau and society in a positive way,’ says Michael Smith, Aspire National Co-ordinator.


Impacting a Generation

Over 2000 young Aspire participants now hold claim to The Salvation Army across Aotearoa.

‘There’s a sense of belonging to The Salvation Army playing out among Aspire students. It’s happening in a different way to what we’ve traditionally seen as belonging—a new way—but it’s happening and that’s well worth celebrating, building on and investing into,’ says Michael.

It’s hard to disagree—after all, who knows what God will do with that sense of ownership?

‘As a Salvation Army programme that’s producing tangible results in the lives of young people, Aspire offers a real point of difference for schools,’ Michael explains. ‘Principals talk and the programme’s reputation is starting to speak for itself. The wider wrap-around support the Army can offer a student and their whānau, such as budgeting and food parcels, counselling and social work support is a real plus.’

In a very real sense, the Aspire programme is an example of The Salvation Army adapting appropriately to the changing landscape of ‘religion in schools’ in the 21st century.

‘We have good systems around youth work training and practice, safety and professionalism, but we’re still a faith-based programme. We’re not pushing a Christian agenda, but taking a holistic approach to the care of young people. Conversations around spirituality are woven differently into the fibre of the programme, depending on the school,’ Michael affirms.

And of course, some young people are finding a spiritual home within the Army. In Whangārei as many as 60 percent of Aspire students have connected into the corps junior youth group.


Evidence-Informed Approach

The Aspire programme itself is founded on evidence-informed youth development practice, and uses The Circle of Courage model developed in indigenous American settlements and post-apartheid South Africa. There are four development stages to the model: Belonging, Mastery, Independence and Generosity. A school term is made up of a module of eight sessions centred around each stage. The Circle of Courage has been simple to articulate, and its effectiveness has resulted in strong buy-in from schools, whānau and students throughout Aotearoa.

‘A third of Aspire students are Māori, another third are Pasifika, with a mix of European and other ethnicities comprising the rest,’ Michael reports. ‘We evaluate the programme using 32 indicators. Students evaluate their own resilience rating target phrases like “I give up easily” and “I’m scared to fail.” This year’s data shows a 32 percent improvement in the wellbeing of participants—that’s a solid indicator of programme effectiveness.’


More than a Programme

But Aspire is more than a just an effective programme.

‘All youth workers know it’s the conversations in the van that provide the real opportunities to influence the lives of young people. Our facilitators have great qualifications and experience, but it’s the heart investment beyond the programme that makes the difference—being a sports coach, parent help on a school trip, or working to connect a young person to a local corps or centre programme,’ Michael affirms.

And of course, the programme looks different across the country and between schools. ‘For example,’ Michael explains, ‘In Whangārei the team are using pouwhenua and taiaha and adapting the sequencing of The Circle of Courage to suit the interest area of the students. In Auckland we have a few places using Pasifika dance as the key medium. The sequencing of experiential learning and de-briefing is still threaded through, but the medium for learning those skills is dance.’


Stories from the Deep South

Aspire facilitator Stacey Watkins of Invercargill Corps reports that, ‘I’ve seen students thrive and move forward in their communication skills, support others and try new things that they never would have attempted before. Each week students shine a little more and choose to participate at a deeper level.

‘We had the pleasure of taking all of the Aspire students to Southern Easter Camp, where one of the young people gave their heart to the Lord. With the support of Invercargill Corps, the students also had the opportunity to attend Southern Youth Councils, which further developed a couple of young people in their faith, and enabled them to deepen friendships made at Easter Camp.’

One Invercargill student says, ‘I like Aspire as I get to do creative learning and experiences I haven’t done before. I enjoyed the camp at BMAC, aka Big Mac!’

Another says, ‘This programme has given me skills I can take into my life journey. I have learned a lot about myself and how I can achieve things I set my mind to. BMAC was my highlight as I got over my fear of tight spaces—I loved the weta in the cave!’


Financial Supporters

Aspire has been funded predominantly through Warehouse Stationery’s ‘Add a Dollar’ campaign, with another smaller portion coming from The Salvation Army Jeff Farm Trust. But with growing interest in Aspire, and each programme costing $10K to run (conservatively), funding can be tricky.

‘Aspire is not a funding stream, but a programme framework. Our financial priorities are first and foremost resources for the programme, then camp support, and finally some support for facilitators if we can manage it. Corps and centre that can sustain the financial support of their facilitators locally provide the strongest model for Aspire success and longevity.’ Michael explains.


A Moment of Pride

When asked what he’s most proud of about Aspire, Michael says, ‘The young people who were participants themselves and have gone on to train, qualify and serve as youth workers. Some are even now Aspire Facilitators.’


For more information about the Aspire programme and to enquire about facilitating a group, check out our Aspire page here.