Our Place are celebrating Volunteers’ Week. This week is all about expressing our gratitude towards the individuals that contribute their time and experience into making the organisation what it is.
Fiona explains that Our Place have recently set up a Youth Participation Forum, soon to be renamed by the young people whose voices this forum seeks to platform (hopefully to something a little bit more catchy). She expresses how good Our Place are at evaluating their mentoring, checking to see how the mentee is getting on throughout the beginning, middle and end of their journey together. This is because the team are committed to being as useful as possible to the young people they help, making it important that they are effectively listened to. In this sense, Fiona says that the individual is always heard, but Our Place also wanted to look at mentoring as an “umbrella” to make sure that there is an effective holistic approach to and delivery of mentoring.
The Forum had their first session last week and will meet every half-term. There’s five members at the moment, four being current mentees and one being a previous mentee who finished their mentoring. The aim is to spark an active conversation where they can talk about the organisation, what it could do better and what sorts of things would be helpful going forward. Fiona also talks about the opportunity for the mentees to talk about what mentoring means and looks like to them, including showing resources used by the team and asking for their opinions on them. In essence, the forum is about “being a stakeholder in the decision-making”. As Fiona passionately points out, society is often bound by telling children what they must do, without explaining why, or how to do it, or what benefit it has. “We lay out our tools and ask them what works for you?” Mentoring, for Fiona – and it certainly comes across in the mentoring team as a whole – is centred around enabling children to have their own voice. Children having “ownership over their own behaviour and their own thoughts allows them to grow and flourish”. And that is exactly what the Youth Participation Forum seeks to do. Youth mentoring is not a quick fix, nor the wave of a magic wand; it is equipping the individual with the outlook and skills that allow them to go forward, to have authority and to believe in themselves and their own abilities.
Fiona joined Our Place in September 2016, having previously worked as a teaching assistant, referring people to the mentoring scheme. Wanting to commit more time into the emotional side of things, she now has roles as a group leader, one-on-one mentor and trainer. Delivering autism training is of huge importance to her, because supporting different needs is a passion of hers. “A lot of the time it’s understanding that it’s only small changes” that need to be made to accommodate different learning and behavioural styles. Fiona highlights the support provided by Kelly to see this passion into fruition, and has found her experiences as a mentor and trainer deeply rewarding. A personal favourite memory includes standing up and delivering an assembly to a whole school about autism awareness. It is wonderful to hear because the steps made by trainers like Fiona ushers in an environment where people want to understand difference and want to contribute to a safe and supportive space. Fiona didn’t anticipate the impact that her volunteering roles could have on children, nor that she would be nicknamed “autism lady” following her assembly. And though there are surprises and things often do not go to plan, “letting children have the space to express themselves creates such a big feeling inside them” and being able to share that journey with them is a joy.
Fiona ends on her views of mentoring and mental health, saying mental health work should be a “complementary part of life” rather than a fix. We all have mental health, days where we are down, and we have the power to bring ourselves back up. “We should talk about mental health when we’re doing brilliantly, it’s part of everyday life and shouldn’t be heard only when we’re struggling”.