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124 JUNE 2009
ListenListen to this


Training and difficult choices

Carina Lewis

Phew! Well, I’ve done my Big Sister training towards being a child/youth mentor. To be honest I wasn’t at all sure what, or who, to expect. Generally I’m not very comfortable in group situations, but it turned out to be not only very interesting, but very good fun. There were fifteen of us and a sense of apprehension filled the room as we all filtered into the spacious office. Chairs were arranged in a semi-circle and there was a slightly nervous atmosphere while everyone arrived and found a seat. I was surreptitiously observing everyone else and they were doing the same.

I think what initially surprised me was how young they were. I was by far the oldest person there. In fact I felt positively geriatric at the age of 50+. Nearly everybody was under 30 and a large number of them were college and university students. What was uplifting was that we were a real mixed bunch of people racially and culturally, but we were all there for the same reason: to help disadvantaged children. Once our trainer had handed out some booklets and pens and started to talk we began to relax a little. She explained we would be covering a number of subjects over the next three days:

For each subject we were provided with a detailed booklet containing a variety of exercises. The way they were presented meant that we began by looking at ourselves and our own feelings. The first step was to build relationships with other people in the group. This involved talking one-on-one and finding out as much as we could about the person next to us. We were all a bit reticent in the beginning but soon started to warm up. Our trainer reminded us that this is what it will be like meeting our mentees for the first few times. It will be a process of exchanging facts and finding out about each other. We will be given a background profile of our mentee but we will have to learn about who they are as people. It’s important to remember that when you meet a child in this situation one should not judge too quickly, make assumptions or go on first impressions. A profile can sometimes be very misleading. After all, it’s largely somebody else’s opinion. Often, if we take the time to talk to people, and more importantly, to listen to them, we find out they are very different from what we, or other people, may have initially thought.

As the evening progressed we carried out a number of fascinating exercises which enabled us to appreciate how we feel in certain situations. They included having to “counsel” each other about a problem, but we were told to do it badly and the people being helped with their “problem” didn’t know this. The people who were trying to discuss their “problem” became quite heated and/or hurt during this exercise. Afterwards we discussed how it felt to be interrupted, not listened to, put down and having our problems dismissed as trivial. It helped us understand how our mentees will feel if they've had bad relationships with parents, teachers or social workers.

The training also helped us understand how our prospective mentees may be feeling in terms of low self-esteem and confidence and also why they may be angry, frustrated and withdrawn. We began to realise that they will be just as nervous and worried about meeting us for the first time as we will them. In fact, they have more to lose if it doesn’t work out. they've already been let down and disappointed in life, so building a relationship with their mentor is extremely important to them. By the end of these few days training we all admitted to feeling very excited about meeting and especially getting to know our mentees. Out of interest, here are some of the reasons people give for becoming a mentor. It’s surprising how varied they are:

Personally my reason is to use my past experience and knowledge to help a young person lead a better and happier life. None of us are able to choose our circumstances when we’re born and I feel that I’ve been very fortunate over the years. It would be wonderful if I can help someone else towards a fulfilling life.

A few days after my training I found out that my case manager is to be Tanya, the lovely lady who interviewed me originally. I liked her straight away and she seems to have a good sense of humour, among other admirable qualities, which I always think is very important. Tanya emailed me to explain that there were two facilities near me where I could be matched with someone. The first is a Girls Town home and the other is Pollsmoor prison's female section.

Obviously it’s extremely important to match a “big” and a “little” (which is the way Big Brothers Big Sisters refer to mentors and mentees) who will get on reasonably well so they are able to build a good relationship. To this end I had been asked a series of questions during my interview to give Tanya an idea of the kind of child I would be best suited to help. She knows that I have a lot of experience with seventeen-year olds (as a driving instructor) and that I have three grown up children of my own. Of course I love small children too, but I think an older child might be further along a downward spiral in life if he or she has had a rough time, so I told Tanya that I would be happiest dealing with a child over thirteen. I also said I had a slight preference for a girl. Tanya wondered why. I had to think for a few moments but my answer was that I felt I could identify with a girl more easily. Although I love both my sons with all my heart I don’t find it quite as easy to identify with their emotions as I do with my daughter. I remember my own feelings and worries during my teen years and that will surely help me to understand a girl better.

Incidentally this is one of the reasons BBBS needs more men as mentors: A male youth will generally feel more able to bond with a man and they’re more likely to share interests in “manly” pursuits. (I’m not being sexist here. It’s just that personally cricket, for example, makes me start yawning and the thought of hammers, nails and pieces of wood makes me run a mile!).

I have to confess I hadn’t been expecting Pollsmoor prison. Initially I had a mild panic attack. Like most people, I’ve not had any dealings with prisons or prisoners in the past, but I sat down with a cup of tea and gave it some thought. The alternative was a 13 to17- year-old from a home where she lives with ten other young people, looked after by a married couple. In some ways this seemed the more comfortable option for me. Part of what I’ve been looking forward to is being able to take my “little” out, once we've built up some trust. But then I tried to imagine what could have led a young girl to commit a crime and end up in prison. She must have been through some very tough times and been pretty desperate and unhappy. Being stuck in prison all day long must be horrible for a young person and there’s also the danger that, because she’s surrounded by other young offenders, she may become drawn into an ongoing life of crime.

So, I’ve decided. Despite the fact that I won’t be able to take her out, I feel I would be of more help to a young girl in Pollsmoor. Now I must wait a bit longer while a girl is identified. After that I'll be sent her profile and that will give me another opportunity to assess the situation before actually meeting her. I think what worries me most is letting someone down, so I must be sure that I feel confident enough to deal with whatever problems she has.

So far this experience is interesting and very thought-provoking “but also a tiny bit anxiety inducing!


Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth mentoring non-profit organization. It was founded in the USA in 1904 and became international in 1998. The program matches youth in need with adult volunteers in one to one relationships which have a direct and lasting positive impact on the lives of the young people. For further information go to

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

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