A young life blighted by bullies - then help came along

JOHN does not hesitate when asked what life was like before joining Children 1st's Befriender service.

"It was bad. It was lonely. It felt like everyone just hated me," the 14-year-old replies.

Such a pessimistic outlook on life is hardly surprising - John's classmates set him on fire in a school bullying campaign which left him emotionally shattered.

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For children like John and his 16-year-old brother Shaun, having a Befriender saved them from becoming isolated from society when they were at their most vulnerable.

Sitting chatting happily in their living-room, both brothers, who are from Edinburgh, appear perfectly at ease. But both have already faced horrendous problems in their young lives.

Like so many Children 1st services, the Befriender programme suffers from over-demand and a shortage or cash, and both brothers faced a wait before they were allocated a volunteer mentor.

John's mother, Sharon, 37, said: "He has had to deal with a lot of bullying from a very young age. They even tried to set him on fire in school. He gets anxious and suffers from panic attacks.

"It got to the point where he would not leave his room or speak to people. And he stopped going to school."

John got paired up with a Befriender three years ago, at which point his life started to turn around.

He said: "After a couple of weeks or months we became really friendly. She would talk to me, and listen to me, and she took me places I liked, like Pizza Hut or the cinema.

"I felt happy. I felt I had someone to talk to, somewhere to go if I needed it."

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The service also helped him return to school, with his Befriender meeting teachers to explain the problems John had been having and find solutions to protect him from bullying.

After such a tough time at the hands of his schoolmates, the Befriender gave him some well-deserved treats.

"I went on a helicopter ride on my birthday, and had a star named after me for Christmas," he said, a smile breaking across his lips which would have looked out of place just three years earlier.

His brother Shaun was a different case. Both brothers found it hard to trust people, but while John withdrew into himself, Shaun became angry and got into fights.

Shaun said: "A lot of the people I grew up with now have convictions - theft, car theft, vandalism, that sort of thing. If it was not for the help from Befrienders, I probably would have gone down the same road as well."

Now aged 16, Shaun is too old for the Befriender programme, but he has a mentor, who offers career advice. He said: "It gives me a structure. At some part of the week I know I'll be doing this, or going there, and that really helps."

Although the Befriender programme is tailored to meet her children's needs, Sharon has also benefited.She said: "At one point, when things were getting better, John's Befriender whispered in my ear, 'See you are a good mother.' That meant the world. You feel you can face anything because you've got these people standing beside you."

• All names have been changed to protect their identities.