Across the country, Action for Children Scotland employs a network of young people who have been there, done that, and want others to learn from their experience.
These young people are our peer mentors. They are a few years older than the children and young people we support through our 75 services across Scotland, and a few steps further along on their journey. They have had similar starts in life, experiencing more at an early age than most of us will in a lifetime. The important thing is that they’ve all survived to tell the tale – and by telling that tale they can help other young people to transform their lives.
Peer mentoring is a simple but effective concept: support, advice and friendship is provided for young people by young people who have faced similar challenges. I believe that this approach should be adopted by all charities and organisations that work with children and young people. If we want to effectively engage with the most vulnerable members of society, we need to talk to them in a language they understand. Hearing that from someone who has lived it is incredibly valuable.
The relationship between children and young people and their mentor, that sense of trust and shared understanding, is what really matters; the activities that place during mentoring sessions can differ from service to service. We worked with the STV Appeal to provide buddies for young carers in the Borders and North Lanarkshire. A young woman in Dundee gives talks to local school groups about her experience of homelessness, encouraging pupils to think about the reality of being away from the family home. Funding from CashBack for Communities has helped us to train our mentors in how to engage young people through sports activities. A young man who was involved in serious organised crime from the age of 13 now works with children who are on the cusp of this lifestyle, proving that they too can turn their lives around.
Our mentors enjoy being part of the initiative, and in many ways have as much to gain as the children and young people they support. For some it may be about making amends for past mistakes and facing demons. For others it’s about gaining work experience. For most it’s about making sure that children and young people get help when they need it – they know first-hand that this can make a huge difference.
Next month six young men who spent time in prison at an early age will take over the kitchen of the Grand Central Hotel and prepare a meal for 200 guests for our annual Yes Chef event. They will be supported through this process by Darren, a young man who was in the same position as them at this time last year – newly out of prison, desperate to build a better life, and nervous at the thought of preparing a meal for so many people in such a grand venue! Darren is an incredibly effective mentor. As well as engaging young people and sticking with them through the highs and lows, he has a huge appetite to learn, improve and give something back. Darren was supported by Action for Children Scotland after leaving prison. He then began volunteering with us, and now works with us as a young person’s practitioner.
Of course, the solution for every young person can’t be that they are given a job with Action for Children Scotland. Some will stay – and I am honoured (and sometimes worried) when I hear that their end goal is to have my job. Some will use their experience to find work with another charity or group for children. And some will move into a different field altogether, having gained renewed confidence and something positive to put on their CV from their mentoring role.
I would be lying if I said there haven’t been bumps in the road as we introduced this way of working, and I would be naïve if I said there aren’t more bumps to come. But I can say without doubt that it has been worth it. Our peer mentors perfectly complement our dedicated and knowledgeable staff, helping children and young people who are facing desperate situations to see that there is a way through. The value of hearing that a happier future is possible - from people who know because they’ve been there – should not be underestimated.
• Paul Carberry is director of service development at Action for Children Scotland and a member of the Serious Organised Crime Taskforce