Taking part in big brother
Shannon Joyce (left) with her volunteer 'Big Sister' mentor Lorraine Smith at Tallaght Youth Services.
A Youth Mentoring programme encourages volunteers to become big brothers and big sisters to vulnerable children, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON .
IN OUR fast-moving, technology-driven culture, real face-to-face interaction with people who matter can often be neglected. And so the arrival of a youth mentoring scheme to Ireland that matches vulnerable young people with voluntary mentors is to be welcomed with open arms.
"Big Brother, Big Sister" (BBBS) is an international mentoring programme that started in the United States and now operates in more than 30 countries. The programme was piloted in the west of Ireland in the early noughties and was developed throughout the State in 2006. Since then, more than 1,000 friendship matches have been made.
Put simply, BBBS matches young people aged 10-18 with a volunteer of the same gender who has been vetted and trained by the local organising body.
In the Republic, the national voluntary youth organisation, Foróige, co-ordinates the BBBS programme. The programme is funded through private philanthropic foundations.
"One-to-one youth mentoring is a new concept in Ireland. But we felt there was a need for a programme such as BBBS because we found through our youth work in Foróige that some young people needed more one-to-one support," explains Paul Tannian, the national manager for Big Brother Big Sisters of Ireland.
Tannian says the programme has been particularly helpful to vulnerable children in lone-parent families, children who have siblings with disabilities or children from large families who aren't getting much attention in the family.
"We hear great stories from our matches. The key is its simplicity. It's all about friendship and is not task-led," says Tannian who adds that the vetting programme for volunteers involves Gardaí and reference checks and a visit to the volunteer's home before training is given.
Lorraine Smith from Lucan, Co Dublin volunteered to be a Big Sister to Shannon Joyce from Tallaght.
"I was always stuck inside all the time and not going anywhere so now I enjoy going out with Lorraine. We like the same stuff," says Shannon (11) who has four big brothers and one younger brother.
"Volunteering was always something I wanted to do. I'd a great childhood myself so I find meeting up with Shannon is a very rewarding thing to do," says Smith.
Agnes Truong is a child and adolescent psychiatric nurse from Vancouver in Canada. "I've volunteered since I was 18 so when I moved to Ireland I wanted to continue that. I find that the work I do is quite stressful so I wanted to find ways of helping young people outside of work," she says.
Truong often meets up with her "Little Sister" in the Tallaght Youth Services where they do a lot of baking and cooking. "We also talk about her future and what she wants to do. We gossip and chat and occasionally I can pass on a bit of advice," says Truong.
Truong also finds that she benefits from the friendship. "She's teaching me a lot about Irish culture and our meetings also remind me of what it was like when I was younger. I'm living my youth through her again."
Once matched, the volunteer and young person meet once a week for a year.
A Foróige staff member checks in with them every month by phone and offers to meet them every three months or so to make sure everything is running smoothly.
"At the end of the first year, we look at the progress the young person has made and see if they want to continue meeting up. A lot of matches continue for a second year but if the young person reaches the age of 18, the match has to be discontinued," says Martje Van Stokkem, who co-ordinates the BBBS programme in Tallaght.
Neil Pickard (29) discovered the BBBS programme on Google. "I moved here from the UK a year ago and had some time on my hands. I had good parenting myself but I am aware of how many children don't get the same opportunities.
"The boy I meet doesn't have great role models so it's helpful for him to be taken out of his day-to-day situation and see how other people live. He's a Manchester United fan and I like football so we get on," says Pickard.
Male volunteers can be difficult to find and many requests for big brothers can not be met because of this.
"Volunteers need to be over 18. Most of them are in their late 20s or early 30s," explains Tannian. "We've never enough volunteers because we get a lot of referrals [referrals come from schools, families and the health services]. The demand is particularly strong for male volunteers."
An American study found that a significant percentage of young people in the BBBS programme were less likely to start using drugs, to start drinking, to skip school and to engage in violent behaviour.
The evaluation also showed significant improvements in relationships with parents and peers. An evaluation study of BBBS in Ireland is currently under way at the Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway.
More information on the Big Brother, Big Sister programme on bbbsireland.ie. Tel: 091-554421