Making A Difference Since 1996
By Gill Sherry
26 years ago, a very important charity was established. Based in Ayr, the South Ayrshire Befriending Project provides a befriending service for young people with social or emotional difficulties who would benefit from having a supportive and caring adult befriender to introduce them to new opportunities and activities. But despite its longevity, many people are unaware of its existence.
“A lot of people still haven’t heard of us or don’t know we’re here but… we’re the only standalone befriending project for children and young people in South Ayrshire.”
I’m chatting to Project Manager, Fiona Mackenzie.
“We recruit and train adult volunteers,” Fiona begins. “It’s our volunteers who deliver the befriending to the children and young people. Our job is to support the volunteers in that role.”
We’re joined by Lorna Mitchell, Project Co-ordinator. The two ladies form part of a small team of five providing support for children and young people from 8 to 18 years in South Ayrshire.
“As much as we support the kids,” Lorna adds, “we also support the volunteers that come through that door.”
Despite already having over 30 volunteers, Fiona stresses that volunteer recruitment remains a priority.
“If someone wants to get involved and make a difference to a young person’s life and they’re able to agree to the commitment, then we’re happy to welcome them to the team.”
That commitment includes 12 hours of training after which volunteers meet their young person for a few hours once a fortnight for a minimum of six months.
“We have volunteers who do much more,” Lorna tells me.
“Some stick to six months… but some, once they get matched with a young person with similar interests… they want to go and do fantastical things together.”
So what happens after the Volunteer Application Form has been completed?
“The volunteers come in,” Lorna continues, “and we have a wee chat. Then they come along to their training. We get to know them quite well… we have activities and discussions. Then we have a post-training interview. Do they see themselves with a particular young person? What do they want to get out of it? Is it an older teenager they want to work with or someone younger? Whereabouts in South Ayrshire?”
I can’t help but think it sounds a little like internet dating but these potential matches are taken very seriously indeed. The needs of the young people are an absolute priority.
“Sometimes it’s matching people with similar interests,” Fiona says. “Sometimes it’s personalities. At the end of the day, we are introducing strangers to the young person and it must be really difficult for them… so we do our absolute best to try and get it right for everyone.”
It must be extremely satisfying when they get that match just right?
“That’s the buzz as a project co-ordinator,” Lorna confirms.
“Matching people together and seeing it go really well and watching them click… that’s what we’re aiming for.”
The befriending service is entirely voluntary and free of charge to those who need it.
“We make that clear to the young people from the outset,” Fiona explains. “This is your choice, it’s something you don’t have to do but it’s there for you if you want it.”
It’s a system that has worked well since the project first opened its doors over 25 years ago.
“I think we tend to get the best out of young people,” Fiona continues. “They might struggle with difficulties at school… that might be a challenging place for them. But befriending is something that they choose to do, something they want to do. They look forward to it because they’ve got a good relationship. The befriending is a positive thing.”
There are all kinds of reasons why a young person might be referred to SABP. They may have experienced bereavement. They may be feeling the loss of a particularly good social worker. Perhaps a parent is no longer living in the family home. Or maybe they just struggle with building relationships.
Lorna tells me the story of one young boy who benefits greatly from the project and the one-to-one support it provides.
“When he joined the project he wasn’t very independent, even going into a shop was a bit of a push. Now, his befriender has him choosing ingredients, baking a cake, measuring it out, learning how to use a cooker safely and then eating in front of her… that was a big issue for him. All of that anxiety has gone. He can now eat at school so his brain is working better, he can learn better and he can start to make friends more easily because he’s not thinking about how hungry he is.”
The benefits for the young people are obvious but the volunteers also find the project rewarding. One volunteer had this to say about her own befriending experience:
“I feel very lucky to see I am making a difference in my young person’s life. Not only have I helped my young person to get out more, they too have helped me to… try new things which is amazing as I am usually very much a house person due to confidence levels which my young person and my project co-ordinators have helped me with tremendously.”
There is no upper age limit for volunteers. Anyone aged 18 or over can apply and no previous experience in working with young people is necessary.
“We’ve got volunteers who are in college or at university,” Fiona tells me. “Others work full time, they’re quite busy, they’ve got families, but they want to make time to give back and make a difference. Then we’ve got volunteers who are retired and that works well because they’ve got flexibility with their time.”
“They all seem to get different things out of being here,” Lorna elaborates. “I think it enhances your CV… in terms of relationship building… flexibility… organisation. Yes, there’s career advancement but there’s also the wellbeing aspect. Our volunteers say it benefits them and enriches their lives.”
“We do think of our volunteers as being an extension of our staff team in all respects,” adds Fiona, “and that’s how we want them to feel when they join our project. Their work is so crucial and we couldn’t deliver our project without volunteers. People have so much to give and that all makes a difference.”
It certainly seems to provide a unique opportunity. Regular social events are arranged as a way of saying thank you to the volunteers for their continued commitment. Additional training opportunities are also available such as Child Protection Awareness. The Scottish Association for Mental Health recently provided an information session and campus officers from local schools have delivered training on social media and internet safety.
“The ripples from befriending can be far reaching,” concludes Lorna.
If you think you have what it takes to become a befriender or would like to support the project in any other way, email info@ bfriend.org.uk, visit www.bfriend.org.uk/be-involved or call 01292 264000.