The tune was familiar, but the words were poignantly, chillingly new. For a moment I couldn’t believe my ears. We were in the Pakuranga Children’s Health Camp dining room on Saturday morning three weeks before Christmas, and the 54 five- to 13-year-olds were hyper. Their giant breakfast of cereal, toast, baked beans and scrambled eggs was over early, the Formica tables cleared, and they sat fidgeting in sixes and eights with arms folded.
Their breakfast session boss, John Samman, a stocky, genteel 40-year-old Ghanaian, wandered the room like an alien pied piper. He knew they’d kill time and consume energy by singing, and suggested Christmas songs. Next instant they broke into their dreadful version of “Jingle Bells.” Watching them, you’d swear they were the happiest kids on earth—lungs and chests pumping, heads rollicking, all smiles, singing their hearts out. Only the words gave the show away.
“Go Hard Or Go Home” read the T-shirt on the A Dorm ringleader who wrote out the song for me. It was appropriate, because today the kids were going hard. It was a day off school, one week before the end of camp, and the festive season really meant something: decorations in all the dormitories and common rooms, music and dancing, visits by Santa Clauses laden with gifts. An action-packed weekend programme included outings to the airport and fun parks, McDonalds and KFC, extravagant Christmas parties with cream cakes and lollies galore, plus presents from service clubs, lodges, women’s groups and such.
After a month of visiting and living in health camps around the country, hearing those Pakuranga kids sing that morning made me realise the one thing that’s common to the youngsters who attend the camps: they are all grown up. These songsters were under no false illusions about Santa Claus and yuletide trappings. Life is very real, and tough, for health camp kids in the 1990s.
In a week or so, about 300 of them in the final intakes of the year would leave the Children’s Health Camp movement’s institutions at Whangarei, Pakuranga, Gisborne, Rotorua, Otaki, Christchurch and Roxburgh. It was the end of a standard, six-week programme which includes attending a special on-site school at each camp on normal school days. Programmes run back to back at all camps for 11 months of the year, with shorter “holiday” camps for special-needs groups like crippled and deaf children during term breaks.
By and large, the kids would return to solo parent homes on benefit incomes, and to a cauldron of social problems. Violence, anger, torture by cigarette burns and beatings, obesity, starvation, alcohol, drugs, neglect, poverty, bed wetting, soiling, incest, rape, lovelessness—these kids, and the movement’s 300 staff, see it all.
Christmastime at camp, though, is when everyone tries to forget the problems. Briefly.
“The kids get spoilt silly,” admits Pakuranga camp manager Warren Mearns. Yet the generosity of outsiders can backfire, as he found out last Christmas. One of the boys received a disposable camera from the Masonic Lodge’s Santa. When his parents had the film developed they were shocked to find pictures of kids baring their buttocks to the camera. Mearns put it down to boyhood bravado, but the parents, whose child was in for behavioural problems, took some convincing.
In the echoing corridors of the dowdy 45-year-old Pakuranga complex—built on a 10-hectare, multimillion-dollar, seafront site overlooking Half Moon Bay Marina—Hilton Stark looks like one of the kids, but he’s actually an RCW (Residential Care Worker), one of two or three adult staff assigned to each dormitory. Shaven-headed, 32, lean and fit, Stark’s in running shoes, jeans, T-shirt and unbuttoned check shirt, chewing gum.
“Hey, Hilton!” a boy of 10 calls down the passage. Half a dozen faces gather around the boy in the doorway to B Dorm.
“What’s happening, guys?” Stark replies.
“Reeememmmberrrrrr?” one chants. The others giggle and jiggle. Another continues, “You’re making our beds, right?”
“Yeah, bro, I told you,” Stark says, reaffirming something he apparently promised earlier, “five times. Each.”
It worked out, he told me later—driving a vanload of girls out to Ardmore Airfield to sit in aeroplanes and pretend to fly them—that in total he would have to make 25 or 30 beds, because he’d lost a bet that if six of them could beat him in a game of basketball, he’d make their beds for a week. He did lose, and didn’t mind a bit. “I won’t say I lost on purpose, but I wanted to end up making their beds. It’s not that difficult—straightening up two sheets and a duvet. It establishes a relationship with them whereby they listen to you and respect you. Then you can help them change, but not till then.
“Take play-fighting. It’s not recommended, because sometimes they can get scared. It can bring back bad memories. But keeping it in fun is okay—though occasionally 10 of them will climb all over you and kick the hell out of you. Then they really count you as a mate!”
Stark is familiar with rough-and-tumble, and with several convictions for assault in his past he is lucky to have his job. The ex-cop’s life turned sour through alcoholism, then he got into trouble with the law himself. He dried out at an adult rehabilitation centre, and had a change of direction. “It was up to me to do something about reforming my life,” he says. He decided to go for a career in “the caring industry.”
Eighteen months ago he volunteered to work for free three nights a week helping out at the camp, keeping his job as an appliance salesman during the day. Management liked his “cruisey style with the kids” and the support he was getting from other staff, and, despite his background, offered him a full-time RCW position. “If camps are about helping kids to change, it’s the same for adults,” he says. “They gave me another chance, and I’ve been here ever since.” This year Stark is studying full-time for a social sciences degree at Massey University, which he plans to follow with a postgraduate diploma in counselling.
At Glenelg, an old Cashmere Hills mansion that serves as the Christchurch children’s health camp for 30 kids at a time, half a Santa Claus dummy is stuck in the staffroom fireplace. Legs in red gumboots, body disappearing up the chimney, this half-cut Father Christmas has beside him on the hearth a sack of make-believe presents and a sign, “Who said there was no such thing as Santa Claus?”
It is Sunday evening, a few days before break-up, and on a couch across the room two pretty blonde girls of 11 and 12 are sobbing quietly into the breast of one of the night staff. She comforts them like a mother, holding them tight to her side. She has tears in her eyes, too.
Barbara Andrew, 38, is a solo mother of three teenagers in her own right. Sunday nights are always difficult, she says, because Sunday is parent visiting day, and it can be unsettling, especially for kids whose folks don’t show. Being Christmas makes it worse, because parents get on the booze and dope and disappear for days on end.
The two girls had, within 20 minutes of one another, received phone calls from their mothers, telling them that mum and dad had split up. There would be no “home” to go to next week.
“For lots of people, the stress gets too much at this time of year,” Andrew says, “but it’s always the kids who suffer worst. Merry Christmas! What a joke.”
After 20 years as camp cook in the central Otago country town of Roxburgh, white-haired Peggy Mathieson is the movement’s longest serving employee. She is 50, and plans to see out retirement.
The former pub and boarding school cook from Oamaru brought up her own two children, now in their mid-20s, by taking them to work as infants and letting them join in with camp activities and “tag along with the matron” on outings until they went to secondary school. “Everyone becomes family when they come to camp, and I know it’s probably wrong but I can’t help treating all these kids as my own,” she says.
“I love children, but you have to feel sorry for a lot of them because of their backgrounds. One little boy stayed here through several camps for six months because no one wanted him. He came with half a bag of gear, and left with three full suitcases and two bags of stuffed toys which the staff gave him. I think he ended up being adopted by people in Cromwell.
“I’ve seen parents here on open days who I wouldn’t trust to look after a cat. Children come here with cigarette burns and emotional hurts, and it upsets me very badly. But when they come to camp they feel free. Most of all it’s because they know where their next meal is coming from.
“Some of these poor little beggars come up to the counter at meal time and ask, `What’s that?’—half of them wouldn’t know what a vegetable is. They ask, ‘Is that an onion?’ and I say ‘No, it’s cauliflower.’ I let them taste a bit, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ It might be pudding—they’ll ask ‘Is that porridge?’ and I say, ‘No, it’s rice pudding.’ In the first week of each camp I get all the kids into the kitchen and let them taste a bit of everything—just a teaspoonful—and I let them know I have a big jar of lollipops to reward those who help out or need an incentive to finish their meal. Then they become a pleasure to feed—they love their meat and their vegies, and they hold out their plates and say, ‘Heaps, please.”
Helping children gain weight was once the main mission of health camps. Now the problems children bring with them to camp are usually more serious than dietary ones. During a classroom discussion with teachers and a local policeman on “staying safe,” a girl of 13 indicated she wanted to talk about something personal. She revealed she had been raped several times by her mother’s boyfriend, but her mum didn’t believe it. The girl felt guilty because she was blamed for breaking up the relationship.
From another girl it was a cry for help: “I would like my dad to go away from mum and me because he always hits me and mum. . . . I would not like my mum to be taken away from me, and me taken to a foster home. I want to stay with my mum and please could you get my mum some help because we have money problems.” A 12-year-old wrote this letter after disclosing a violent home situation and being asked what she would like to see happen. As a result, Social Welfare intervened and the girl and her mother shifted to a women’s refuge.
An adolescent girl who feared being molested by partygoers at her home shared with her class how she protects herself: she keeps blankets, a pillow, a bottle of drink and a packet of biscuits in the ceiling of the house, and climbs up through the manhole, covers it and sleeps safely all night till the parties are over.
“I suppose you can call it survival tactics,” says Val Goss, 54, a veteran teacher who took the job of principal at Roxburgh’s camp school five years ago. Her last jobs were as an inspector for the Education Review Board Office and as a “Tomorrow’s Schools” adviser. Now she combines a rural lifestyle on a farm where she lives in an old church with a more challenging job “at the chalk face of child health and education.”
Goss makes no apology for her view that girls get a raw deal from the health system. “Public health nurses, social workers and schools seem to put their attention on boys because they create noise and violence, and their mothers like to get rid of them. Take a girl from her mother and mums don’t like it, because girls are the babysitters, they get the meals and they’re the ‘nice quiet little girl’ at school. But change a girl, and you change the future, because she will train the boy. It’s dealing with the problem before it arrives.” Goss has successfully agitated on this point, and at Roxburgh the camp manager now admits more girls than boys.
New Zealand’s seven health camps are bursting at the seams with problem children—and in recent years some of their parents. “Health problems” is the euphemism used. The system picks them up. Public health nurses, social workers from the Children and Young Persons Service, teachers and doctors are the main referral agents. Last year 3017 children and 678 parents attended camp because someone detected problems they decided could not be sorted out at home. Of the children, 60 per cent went specifically for behavioural and emotional reasons such as temper tantrums, aggression, stealing, withdrawal, dependency and sleep and anxiety disorders. The rest had physical health problems to do with asthma, eczema, epilepsy, sores, ears, diet, soiling (encopresis), wetting (enuresis), or simply that parent and child needed time apart.
The parents attended live-in courses and workshops on parenting skills, personal relationships and, where necessary, basic hygiene and housekeeping.
As well as addressing specific physical and behavioural problems, health camps emphasise learning and the development of social skills, gained in part as children attend health camp schools.
Val Goss believes the role of the schools is even more underrated than the camps themselves. “Government should be upping the funding for both health camps and health camp schools—but instead it is cutting it,” she says. The seven schools—one for each camp—come under the umbrella of the Special Education Service, and cost about $880,000 in teachers’ salaries and $350,000 in operating expenses a year. They work (in theory at least) on a 1:12 teacher-pupil ratio.
Sue Barr, 33, principal of the Glenelg camp school for the last year, applied for the job after 13 years as a teacher because of her “special interest in behaviour-disordered children” and her frustration with mainstream teaching. “In a normal classroom you may have 40 children, and can provide little support or real help for difficult pupils. I was always concerned that I could not do enough for the behaviour-disordered children in my class. At least at Glenelg I feel that I am addressing the needs of these at-risk children.
“It seems so short-sighted. The country is spending more and more on prison systems, and not enough on coordinated across-the-board early interventions at family level. Interventions in just one setting, such as school, have been shown to have little long-term benefit. However, through health camps we can target these families—get children out of their school and family environment and provide skills for the child and their caregivers so that real change can occur.
“In this special school environment we can control many of the variables that see children failing in normal classrooms. I know that everyone wants greater funding, but I believe our schools can make a significant impact on children for good. Unfortunately, the government can’t see it. We’ve just had our application for an itinerant teacher to provide follow-up support declined.”
Barr contends that funding for health camp schools has declined substantially in real terms over the last five years, and whereas regular schools can resort to parents to make up the shortfall, health camps fare especially hard as they lack a parent body to call upon.
All the camps have waiting lists. At each one, there is capacity and willingness to handle more kids and more parents, but the organisation is hamstrung by a lack of funds. After 76 years of dedication, ministering to as many as 4000 children a year, the health camps are in crisis themselves.
It costs $7 million or $1894 per camper to run the camps on a break-even basis with bare-bones maintenance. Although on the books the seven properties have an asset value of $11 million, in general the camps are run down. Staff wages consume $5.5 million, and what’s left goes on food and other necessities. For more years than most can remember, operating costs have left the camps bereft of sufficient funds to run at capacity. Some dormitories and facilities are kept in mothballs. An adventure playground and fort at Pakuranga remained idle all summer for the want of $4000 in repairs.
Apart from $850,000 which is generated by gifts and fundraising (including $120,000 last year from the sale of health stamps), most of the operating revenue is taxpayer money extracted with considerable difficulty from the four Regional Health Authorities (RHAs) who disburse it. All camps compete annually for funding, and the yearly process of negotiating with each authority on a piecemeal basis is vexing and frustrating. “With 23 staff who take their work seriously and a $2 million asset to administer, how am I supposed to plan ahead when all I’ve got is a one-year contract from the RHA?” asks Brian Cunningham, 41, a former Education Board manager in charge of the Maunu camp at Whangarei.
Ron Turner, a former Army officer who was appointed chief executive of the Children’s Health Camps Board in 1990, is scathing of the RHA professionals with whom he and his camp managers must negotiate funding. “They are not willing to pay what our services are worth, so for us it’s a hand-to-mouth existence. Last year, for example, we ran at a deficit, and on top of that the RI-I.As have changed their terms of payment several times. Now we get our monthly income not at the start of a month but on the 20th of the following month, and we have to carry the deficit for 50 days. We can’t keep rolling with these punches. Frequently we have to deal with different RHA officials, and they always start off by demoralising us with their reports of no extra money for the new year. Yet the RHAs have had their quota increased for 1996-97 by 3.7 per cent, or $180 million, to a total of $5.13 billion. All we need to overcome our deficit problem is $360,000. That’s probably not even the cost of one glossy report.
“Unless we can get the RHAs to recognise the real cost of delivering our services so we can meet critical maintenance costs, we’ll have to take the money from our staffing budget, which means fewer staff and fewer children. That’s a tragedy.”
Turner argues that health camps provide one of the few fences at the top of the child health cliff, rather than the ambulance at the bottom. Next to no money goes into top-of-the-cliff child health care, he says. “As a nation, we spend more on our gardens and trees than we do on our children, yet they’re our most valuable national asset.”
A clash of ideologies is at the root of the problem. Dwayne Crombie, spokesperson for North Health’s children’s services, typifies the attitude of many health professionals. “The needs of at-risk children are not best served by putting them in a holiday camp for six weeks, then sending them back home,” he says. “The bottom line is that of our child health budget of $90 million, we give $2 million to health camps in the North Health region, and we think there are better ways to spend the money. For that much we could have probably 30 more field workers out there actually relating to families in their homes.”
In her history of health camps, Children’s Health, the Nation’s Wealth, Margaret Tennant, a senior lecturer in history at Massey University and author of several books on women’s and health history, backgrounds the antagonism among welfare and health professionals towards institutional care. “In social science literature of the 1970s,” she writes, “institutions such as asylums, orphanages and child welfare homes were often analysed historically as oppressive structures, key agencies of social control. Deinstitutionalisation’ and ‘community care’ became buzzwords of the 1980s…. New orthodoxies denounced residential care as inefficient, inflexible, culturally insensitive and generally disempowering to those committed there.”
Health camps, however, were a few steps back from the Social Welfare homes so zealously closed down by Labour’s Ann Hercus and her successors. The camps were seen as providing a short-term stay where attendance was entirely voluntary.
Nonetheless, they have attracted some of the professional opprobrium attached to residential care. The most persistent criticism, says Tennant, holds that health camps come between children and families, and send children back to an unchanged family situation.
After two years of research, including 150 interviews with former campers, Margaret Tennant concludes that health camps still have a role to play in the 1990s.
“I started out thinking health camps were a product of a bygone age,” she admits, “but I came away feeling they are actually fulfilling a very definite need. They provide a place where children can get away from families in times of stress, a chance for time out. Overall, however, my impression is that because they must compete for funding nowadays, there is a threat they could be closed down one by one. Unfortunately, they provide preventative health care, and it’s hard to prove that they work or to measure whether they change lives long term. They’re simply an imperfect institution in an imperfect world.”
Imperfect” is not a word that would have sat too easily with the movement’s founder, Dr Elizabeth Gunn. She argued that just as a “weedling” plant could be permanently strengthened by a bit of judicious attention, so could a malnourished child be set on a brighter course. Massive consumption of food, fresh air, sunshine and gentle exercise (you didn’t want to burn off weight gains), were the principal ingredients in a recipe whose success was measured squarely on the scales. After just three weeks at her first experimental camp in Turakina, near Wanganui, in 1919, it was claimed that only one child had not put on weight. Some, improbably, were supposed to have gained ten pounds or more.
Similar camps at Turakina were held most years until 1930, but during the 1920s and ’30s a rash of other camps sprang up in Gunn’s considerable wake. Some were initiated by school doctors inspired by Gunn, others by local enthusiasts or societies, such as the Auckland Community Sunshine Association, the Waikato Children’s Camp League, the Otago Health Camp Association and the Canterbury Sunlight League.
In some of these groups, exposure to the rays of the sun was revered as producing near miraculous benefits. “Baths of water are good, baths of air are better, and baths of light are best” ran one motto.
Eugenicist notions were also popular, encouraging not just improved health, but the “Betterment of the Race” through instilling a “eugenic conscience” in the young. Cora Wilding, the force behind the Canterbury Sunlight League, was careful to select “children with good heredity, perhaps children of widows or widowers, returned soldiers or those whose parents are temporarily unemployed . . . [rather] than from the homes of the mentally deficient, vicious or unemployed who won’t work and are perfectly contented to be supported by the hard work of others.” Unusual for her time, Wilding also incorporated elements of Maori culture into her camps for what were mainly pakeha girls, and emphasised mental as well as physical development.
In a not entirely comfortable relationship with these enthusiasts and their fads was the Health Department, which provided some funds and personnel for running camps. Many of the early campers slept in tents, not always suited to coping with inclement weather, and in 1937 Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage launched a campaign to commemorate the late King George V by building a series of permanent health camps around the country.
He proclaimed of the camps: “Here the boy or girl whose health is sub-normal—below par—and who will otherwise be one of the first to fall at the approach of disease, becomes a changed being—revitalised in mental and physical resources, on the way to become a useful, self-reliant and prosperous citizen with memories that will help to keep him or her intensely human. Such a child returns to school and home bright-eyed and vigorous, full of the joy of life and with a health insurance policy with premiums fully paid up for years ahead.”
About the same time, the Health Department set up an administration for controlling camps, while still trying to retain some of the volunteer elements. Enthusiasm was nonetheless dampened, and the rise of government involvement in social welfare didn’t help matters. World War II interfered with the construction and use of camps (some were requisitioned for war purposes), but by 1950 permanent camps had been established in Gisborne, Nelson, Christchurch, Roxburgh, Whangarei, Otaki, and Pakuranga. All apart from the Nelson camp are still in use. The fifties were the heyday of the permanent camps, but by the mid-1960s health stamp revenues were lagging behind needs, and health professionals were snidely referring to the camps as anachronisms.
Investigations in the 1980s stirred up the movement. Aussie Malcolm, National’s Minister of Health, in appointing the 1983 Hancock Committee of Inquiry into health camps, said that the system had become moribund and ill-directed, and that it was “falling into the hands of bureaucrats and well-intentioned older members of the community without real life or vigour.” Many saw the inquiry as the camps’ death knell.
In response, the health camps board set up a central head office in Wellington, hired a professional manager as chief executive, and wrote a florid strategic plan, extending to the year 2001, that sets the goal of becoming the leader in promotion of child and family health. A new management culture has taken over, with the phasing out of matrons and the appointment of health professionals as camp managers.
Each camp now has at least one full-time field worker, and draws on residential caregivers to help with a goal of visiting every child at home before and after camp. Nearly all camps have a staff kaumatua to help in dealing with Maori, who make up a third of all campers, and up to two-thirds of attendees at Whangarei, Rotorua and Gisborne.
Parenting programmes have been developed, and facilities created for families to stay at camp. And there is now a broad range of 22 activity-based health care and social skills modules covering specifics like teasing, bullying, peer pressure, anger management, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, ear and skin care, communication, personal safety, self esteem, good food, bedwetting and faecal soiling.
Playing by the new rules has not pleased all health camp staff. Roxburgh’s candid cook, Peggy Mathieson, sees little reason to beat about the bush. “The trouble today is that you’ve got to swallow a bloody dictionary to work in this business, and it only makes things worse.” For the health system to put the camps under such financial pressure at a time when “society is sick and getting worse” stinks, she says. “I mean, if they shut this place down, where are these children going to go? Sniffing round the streets until the police or social workers pick them up.”
Glenelg camp manager Allen Gibbs, 41, a trained nursing technician who turned to hospital management in 1988, is stoical about his dealings with health authorities who are not always sympathetic to health camps’ needs.
“We’ve got to act smarter if we are to he successful in today’s health system,” says Gibbs, who was a Glenelg camper as a six-year-old. “The future lies in better educated parents—the one job no one trains for. I believe our own health camp parenting programmes are so effective that we need to take them into the community and get parents a tax break or some other incentive to be trained in parenting skills before having their children. There are unemployed and elderly people in every street who have successfully raised children, and we need to equip and fund these people to give us a helping hand. It must become the nation’s priority.”
Gibbs is uncompromising in his stand for health camps. “They are unique in the Western world, and they are ideal for the New Zealand make-up. Traditionally, it’s been a short enough intervention that kids haven’t felt abandoned by their parents, but long enough to break a lot of negative behaviour and overcome health problems.
“Soiling and bedwetting are a good example. Mum and dad try everything, even putting the child in hospital, and feel like they’re up against a brick wall because none of the interventions work. Here at camp the child comes to a supportive environment, we teach and establish routine, we start getting some success, and the child begins to train their own bladder or bowel. We’re also able to tackle things like poor self-esteem, often the result of being ostracised by peers, and negative and aggressive behaviour, which is often the child compensating for the fact that they feel messed up emotionally.”
Still more structural changes are in store for the health camp movement this year. Public law specialists Mai Chen and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former Labour Prime Minister, were commissioned by the Ministry of Health to review the 1972 Health Camps Act and see whether it should be repealed or replaced. Last year they reported that health camps were a “most curious hybrid”—neither a charity nor a government agency—and unless they were “reconfigured” were unlikely to flourish.
They advocated the passing of new legislation which would allow the camps “maximum freedom to be innovative with regard to care and services for disadvantaged children,” Chen and Palmer said. They noted that health camps were the only social agency providing residential care for children, and that after 75 years and profound changes in social conditions “there is still a need for the sort of therapeutic intervention in the lives of New Zealand children that health camps provide.”
The health camps board has since decided to pursue a registered charity model for the future of the movement, and is working with government to draft suitable legislation. Meanwhile, the RHAs are applying pressure for further change.
“We’ve got until the end of the year to come up with a plan to increase our involvement in the community, with more home visits. While we are sympathetic to this and other new ideas, unless we get more money, we will have to reduce our intakes of needy kids to fund it,” Ron Turner says.
Too bad. Former campers are among the keenest advocates of the benefits of the movement and the experience that it gives a child.
Terry Bennett was the eldest of eight children and skinny. His doctor referred him to health camp to “get sorted out.” He vomited when forced to eat rhubarb, and was one of two kids who ran away from his camp in the 1950s. “But overall, it was an unquestionably good experience because the people were very friendly,” he says. Now chief executive of a group of rest homes in Northland and Wanganui, he comments, “I guess it’s what turned me on to health care as a profession.”
Lizzie Gunn would probably cheer.