When I decided to volunteer as a mentor for a child in care, I knew that I wanted to make a difference. Having attended a secondary school in quite a rough part of South London, I had frequently seen the detrimental effects a lack of role models and support could have on a young person’s life. Many young people can be rebellious but I saw a noticeable difference with those who were in the care system – anti-social behaviour, isolation and drug abuse were common.
A recent review by Lord Laming and the Prison Reform Trust suggests that children in care are six times more likely to be cautioned or convicted of a crime than other young people. I strongly believe having independent volunteer mentors can change this. As suggested in a report by Barnardo’s on independent visitors, “strong, supportive relationships, based on mutual caring and trust can make all the difference to someone’s life and life outcomes.”
Via Action for Children, I was paired with a young girl in her early teens. The Action for Children London Independent Visitors Scheme is a programme that pairs children in care with a volunteer mentor. When I was first matched, I was determined to inspire and encourage her through a range of activities. From trampolining to museum trips, we scaled the streets of London enjoying all the great excursions the city had to offer. After 6 months, we had built a strong bond and I was pleased with her positive feedback on our outings. However I soon came to realise that it wasn’t about the activities, it was about me just being there. I became a confidant and more importantly, a friend. Someone who wasn’t being paid to be there or fulfilling their work duties, just someone she could easily talk to who genuinely wanted to spend time with her.
The effects of the social care system can be highly detrimental to a child’s mental health. Breakdown of foster care placements, inconsistent contact with family and changes in schooling can all affect a child’s self-esteem. My young person had experienced 8 foster care placements when I met her – she was only 14. As such, she dealt with anxiety, depression, mistrust and a lack of self-confidence – this is the reality for many young people in care.
When she was moved to her ninth placement outside of London, I was her first call. After visiting her a few times before she was moved back, I realised that being a constant, reliable friend was a major factor. For children in care who so frequently experience temporary relationships with foster carers, social workers and even school friends, having a mentor who is a constant contact is invaluable.
Here a just a few long-term benefits of children in care having a mentor (evidenced by The Mentoring and Befriending Foundation):
• reduced social isolation
• social networks
• access to employment
• social skills, confidence and self-esteem
• reduced negative behaviour e.g. offending
For me, I can already see a real change in how my young person views herself and life just based on our friendship. I hope this will positively affect her life chances in the long-term.
As a former Miss America once said “Volunteering is at the core of being a human. No one has made it through life without someone else’s help.” I believe this is very true and I hope that more volunteers can take on the opportunity to impact and transform the lives of children in care.
Esther Blake is a communications coordinator at Big Society Capital