How Your Corps Works
What exactly are we doing to help our youth?
The Problem In New Zealand
Of the 41 developed countries, New Zealand ranks 35th overall for our child wellbeing, dragged down by a number of poor scores for mental and physical health care. Rising rates of youth suicide occurs alongside rapid economic and social change together with unemployment. The male youth suicide rate is often at least twice as high as that for female youth. Māori males aged 15–24 years often have the highest suicide rates of any other ethnicity in New Zealand.
For children in single-parent households, the number growing up in material hardship is nearly one in three. About 60,000 children, or five per cent, are considered to be in "very severe hardship". For Māori, 17.8% are in income-poor households, for Pacific, it’s 16.3%, for Pākehā it's 14.1% and for disabled it is 17.6%. The rates of material hardship for mokopuna Māori and disabled children are twice as high as Pākehā and non-disabled, and for Pacific children, it’s three times as high. About one in four Pacific children are in households in material hardship.
The programme for International Student Assessment concluded that New Zealand has the second highest rate of school bullying (out of 51 countries) in the developed world. About 36% of Year 5 and 38% of Year 9 students surveyed in PIRLS and TIMSS reported that they were bullied on a monthly basis. ‘Being made fun of’ and ‘being excluded on purpose from activities’ are consistently the most common forms of bullying. Students that are more likely to be exposed to bullying are: male; disabled; LGBTQIA+, particularly transgender students; New Zealand born; low achievers; and from a disadvantaged background.
The Your Corps Solution
Your Corps was founded by James Wards in Gore as a response to the crisis of mental health and suicide that he was seeing in his own community. The mission of the organisation is to forge genuine lasting relationships and reduce the number of suicides in New Zealand by bringing young people together and building communities around gaming.
Gaming is enjoyed by many young people, yet, given that it is generally depicted as a solitary activity, it may seem like an unconventional vehicle for establishing friendships. However, gaming is unthreatening and as such it presents an 'excuse' for Your Corps to get people together physically for a gaming event; from there, they can discover shared interests and build friendships.
Your Corps operates on a mixture of trading income derived from selling products, offering youth mentoring services to various government organisations and providing programmes to various educational institutions. Trading income received is reinvested back into the operation in order to continue to provide opportunities.
Through gaming events, young people learn new social and computer skills, grow connections with other people interested in gaming, and develop a better sense of self. These outcomes lead to increased self-confidence and better social connections. Your Corps regularly hears stories of young people who are happier and significantly more engaged after just one event.
Positive relationships build resilience, which leads to better mental health and improved sense of belonging within the community.
Events that bring young people together face-to-face to play cooperative multiplayer video games.
DEVELOP A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF OTHERS
• Increased empathy
• Increased connection to role models
• Increased connection to others
INCREASED SENSE OF CONNECTION AND BELONGING
• Improved quality of social connections
• Decreased youth crime
DEVELOP A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF SELF
• Increased self-esteem
• Increased ability to interact with others
BETTER MENTAL HEALTH
• Improved mental health
• Decreased risk of suicide
• Decreased risk of drug/alcohol abuse
DEVELOP NEW SKILLS
• Increased technical computer skills
• Increased ability to interact with others
• Increased employability
• Increased ability to achieve their goals
• Increased visibility of alternative pathways
"My child quickly became one of the regulars, he made new friends with similar interests and his confidence was given a huge boost. His anxiety has reduced immensely and his depression almost vanished. The increase in self esteem makes him much less of a target for school bullies and he is so much happier about attending school now."
-Letter from a Parent to Your Corps.
"Hey James I'd like to share with you something my son said today that entirely changed my perspective. Initially I thought of Your Corps as a fantastic reward for good behaviour. (Thinking it was solely a gaming event) But now I believe he actually needs this. He said he looks up to you as his male role model, he was too embarrassed to tell you this himself. But you have changed his life and I'm so glad you do what you do. I'm sure my son is not the only young man you have helped, he thinks very highly of you and why you do what you do. Respect!"
-Letter from a Parent to Your Corps.
"I grew up with gaming and being a troubled youth myself I got into a lot of robberys I started drugs an i started smoking and its ruined my life cos I can't shake it and the main thing is because that we need a safe place for us youth to feel safe and have fun at the same time and meet new people doing something new instead. I remember going to ur first event and staying for the whole time and I had so much fun and that's what gaming is about bringing people into one place and meeting the people behind the screen."
-Facebook Message from a Teen to Your Corps
"While supervising this group I was surprised by the high levels of enjoyment, interaction and animation among them. Most of the boys were strangers to one another, they came from different classes and ability levels. They were a mix of quiet and reserved academic types and outgoing sporty types. Their commonality was a love of gaming which quickly forged a bond between the group and helped develop new friendships."
-Letter from a Menzies College Principal Kath Luoni to Your Corps.
"I hear the children celebrating each other's wins and working as a team. The social aspect and the celebrations of success is so healthy and nurturing to these young children. James is an asset to this town. Men who are in the business of helping promote young children's health and happiness are so rare. He is not just a man who likes playing computer games he's a man who knows what he's doing and is helping our children. We have the highest rate of suicide in this city and so many of us are alone. Please at least look into Your corps and the smiling faces of these children who attend."
-Letter from a Parent to Your Corps.
Your Corps News Coverage
The ROCK FM asks:
What is Your Corps?
How it Started and Why
James Wards’ social gaming organisation Your Corps® supports the mental wellbeing of our youth by bringing them together to game as a community. But it also serves a deeper purpose – to save young people from turning to suicide.
He spoke to The Life Magazine about his mission to make New Zealand’s young people feel connected.
The Life Magazine: Edition 8 - Forging Connection In Digital Battlefields
All James Wards wants to do is to make a difference. To save a life.
He’s not a surf lifeguard, a paramedic or part of a search and rescue team; although in a metaphorical sense, maybe those heroic titles could be associated with him. Like a lifeguard, he keeps watch over a group of people to keep them safe; like a paramedic, he’s on the scene when those in trouble need help; and like a search and rescue team member, he identifies youth in need of rescue.
James works tirelessly to create a safe and accepting community for secondary school students, including at-risk youth who feel they don’t fit into the system. Where others don’t “see” these kids, James does. And he does it all through gaming.
Formerly a farmer in Gore, New Zealand, James is the founder of Your Corps®, a social gaming events organisation that brings young people together to game as a group rather than in isolation. The idea is kids are playing these games at home anyway, so why not bring them together in a positive, encouraging environment where they can make friendships and connect with like-minded people.
At the core of the operation is James’ burning passion to tackle New Zealand’s youth suicide rates and mental wellbeing. New Zealand regularly features among the worst suicide statistics in the developed world across various reports, especially that of our youth suicide rates. Your Corps® is a community response to a community problem. “These friendships they’re developing in digital battlefields are translating to real life friendships.”
Four years ago, Your Corps® was born out of James’ promise to his friends’ mother. She had three sons; two of them she lost to suicide. He promised he’d do all he could so mental health wouldn’t take her third son.
If those brothers, his friends, had spoken about the demons they were dealing with, had a keen ear to listen, then James thinks things might have been different. He wants to be that person for the kids walking through the door on Saturdays to Your Corps®.
“No one’s invincible – even if you’re a big brick shit-house rugby player.”
This isn’t just a nice thing to do for a good cause – this is James’ heart. He gets worked up explaining the roadblocks he’s up against in terms of getting others to understand how beneficial gaming together can be and just how many people do it. Gaming, often misunderstood and mischaracterised as a closeted activity that takes place in darkened solitude, is played by a large percentage of young people and is just as much a community as physical team sports on a field. In his experience, James found some kids are gaming to escape – bullying and poverty among some of the vast mental health challenges facing young people. His passion – and frustration – are palpable.
“We’re [Your Corps®] advocating for kids’ rights and kids’ opportunities … We’re a voice for that generation.” A much needed voice; one which James didn’t have growing up in Gore. The thing is, he sees himself in these kids, and that’s why he can talk to them – because he was them. At school, he didn’t feel seen or understood by his teachers. He knew early on that computers and gaming were his language, though. “Ever since I got my PS1 I knew I wanted a future in video games.”
That early knowledge proved handy when it came to setting up his operation. The 20 computers that make up the nest of a
Your Corps® multi-player gaming event were designed and built by James and his team of volunteers. It’s a mammoth task with metre upon metre of cables and one that takes them all over the South Island.
Every town has its own corps identity – Invercargill, Gore, Balclutha and Dunedin – specific to their area. There are many familiar faces at the events, but always new ones, too. James greets every kid that walks through the door as a peer, an equal and a friend. It’s a safe space, even for first timers. At one Invercargill event, a boy was there for the first time. He sat himself on the other side of the nest from the other kids, but James kept a watchful eye on him – didn’t push him too early. “He’ll be on the other side soon enough, yahooing and carrying on with the rest of them.” Everyone knows the drill – just jump in and get gaming. Bring some snacks, be respectful and have a good time.
Being able to speak that language with the members of Your Corps® means the kids know they’re in a safe space and have a confidante in James. He tries to be a positive male role model for them, where some of them don’t have that figure in their lives.
“I can’t solve all the world’s problems with video games, but I can tick a few boxes. But we are solving some of the social issues video games are being unfairly blamed for – with video games.”
Creating sustainable access for people to attend the events is where a lot of the arduous work lies. The best way to ensure little or no barrier to access is to make the events free, but running 20 gaming computers, upgrading software and travelling all over the country doesn’t come cheap. James funds a lot of it from his own wallet and applying for funding is a struggle, he said.
“[Accessing funding] is our biggest battle by a landslide.”
To help off-set some of the cost, some events are sponsored by a local business. It’s not the most sustainable business practice, but if there’s a kid in need who doesn’t have the means but James knows Your Corps® is going to make a difference, you can bet that James is going to figure out a way.
Head to the Your Corps® Facebook page and you only need to read a few of the letters posted by James that he receives from kids, parents, caregivers and teachers to know that his work is making a difference. “…it’s a place where I can truly be myself and not care what others think because the people aren’t too much different from me and I can be as loud or ‘nerdy’ as I want,” one of the letters reads.
“I find it hard to be a female gamer especially since none of my girl friends game. I have a lot going on with family issues and gaming helps forget reality for a while … I enjoy spending time with my corps friends and we love gaming together…” another explains.
Regularly, James faces concerns from others who aren’t sure of the merits of e-sports; that the content is too violent or being in front of a screen is unhealthy. Though, the same argument could be applied to movies with violence, he said.
However, he hears these concerns and has regulations around how the events are run. For example, gamers are connected to Your Corps® private servers, so the kids are only interacting with people who are actually at the Your Corps® event. The events are split into two sessions: one for 8-12-year-olds (playing games such as Fortnite, Minecraft), and one for 13-17-year-olds (playing Call of Duty, Counterstrike and others). “It’s a more co-operative experience because you’re working together to solve a problem.”
He draws a line at Grand Theft Auto – that’s a no-go. “There’s a profound difference between violence and adult themes. “We’ve got a moral obligation to uphold what we deem appropriate.”
The past four years have taught him a lot and there have been many sleepless nights worrying about if Your Corps® was making the difference he’s intended. At the 2019 Gore District Community Awards, James was the joint winner of the J D Souness Young Achiever Award. The award recognises a young person who has made a significant positive impact on the wider community and has the potential to make an impact on the broader New Zealand community. That was a good moment for him. One which validated the work he tirelessly campaigns for to ensure disenfranchised youth have someone backing their corner, speaking their language.
“I’m just the captain of this ship, the kids are the crew in charge.”
James Earl Aitken Wards
Founder and Operator of Your Corps®