"I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 2016 was the year I felt the urge to spend more of my time helping others. At the age of 31, I feel more settled in my life, while the world seems anything but. The news has made me tearful on several occasions, but I got to a point, quietly sobbing in the shower one morning, when I realised crying is redundant. Stop whining, I told myself. Do something.
Soon after I moved to Queen’s Park, north London, I read about a local charity, Salusbury World, that supports refugee and migrant children and their families. They were looking for people to help with an after-school reading club. I liked the idea of getting involved in a charity supporting refugees, and even better, one that was within my own community. But the club started at 3pm and I work full time. Too impractical; I’ll think of something else, I thought. Months went by.
National Council for Volunteering Organisations, tells me that was my first mistake. Of course, you have to be realistic about the time you have to spare. “Even if it’s a cause you are truly passionate about, sometimes life can get in the way,” Stephenson says. But don’t assume that something is off limits without talking it through. “Have a chat with the volunteer manager or member of staff. It may be that they can offer some more flexibility, or they may be able to suggest a different role that could be easier for you to commit to.”
I give Salusbury World a call, and the next day go to meet them. We discuss all the services they offer, from after-school and holiday clubs to teenage and adult mentoring. I describe my working week and they suggest their teenage-mentoring programme. I will be matched up with one female teenager, most likely an A-level student, and meet with her for two hours once a week at 5.30pm (a much more practical time for me) during term time. We will meet in the charity’s office, alongside other mentoring pairs, and overseen by a charity staff member.
When refugee and migrant children arrive in the UK, they are usually placed in the school year group that corresponds with their age, irrespective of language barriers. Can you imagine being thrown into GCSE physics, for instance, without speaking English, on top of the fundamentally unsettling nature of moving to a new country? Their parents, who are themselves facing numerous battles, can’t help with homework, and their mentor is often the only other English-speaking adult in a migrant child’s life beyond their teacher.
The students elect to come to this programme, and they can use the time in the way that they wish. It might be an opportunity for a teenager to discuss their future, or simply the world, with someone: one pair often like to read the newspaper together. This suits me perfectly, and I sign up.
Volunteering with minors requires a certain amount of preparation. As I write, I have been to one of two training sessions, one interview (so Salusbury World can match mentor and mentee appropriately); I am in the process of undergoing background checks. This month, I will meet my mentee for the first time, and hopefully contribute something to her life. I’m pretty sure she’s going to bring something new to mine, too.
• Who do you want to help? Would you like to work with children, the elderly, homeless people?
• If you’re passionate about what you do, you’re more likely to stick at it
• Volunteering close to home makes it easier; contact your local Volunteer Centre
• Don’t be put off by time commitment. There are one-off volunteering roles as well as opportunities at weekends or out of office hours. You can also volunteer online or remotely: for information, contact Medway Volunteer Centre."