Volunteering: On the lookout for new friends

Now in its ninth year, Shetland Befriending Scheme has proved itself to be a great success and is currently looking to expand its list of volunteers. Malachy Tallack meets project workers Lynn Tulloch and Roberto Getto to discuss the scheme, and talks to one volunteer about his experience of befriending.

Most of us consider ourselves to be good friends. We know our strengths – the abilities and characteristics that others value in us: our honesty, reliability, sense of fun. We all have something to offer, and Shetland Befriending Scheme is looking for volunteers who are willing to offer their friendship to young people in need of those strengths.

The scheme gives young people a chance to meet with adults on a regular, one to one basis, to help them develop their own strengths: their confidence, self-esteem or sense of independence. It provides them with someone outside their own family to talk to – someone reliable, when perhaps others have let them down before.

Lynn Tulloch is the project co-ordinator for the scheme. For her, the benefits of befriending are clear. “It offers the chance for young people to build up and develop skills by engaging with an adult in an informal, fun way. There can be a real sense of achievement for them.”

The young people using the scheme are aged between seven and 25. They are split into three groups: children and young people from seven to 15, young adults aged 16 to 25, and those aged seven to 15 with additional support needs (ASN). Meetings with befrienders can involve sporting activities, arts and crafts, attending a local event, a walk or even just a cup of tea and a chat.

Roberto Getto is the development worker for young people with ASN. He is equally adamant about the benefits of the project, and says that it can be surprising which activities have the most positive impact. “A simple thing like a walk round the Knab can energise a young person and give them a really positive experience they can learn from”, Roberto said. That small amount of input can be so significant. People can make a big difference just by engaging one to one with them.”

“We had a young person who had never really engaged in their local library before” Lynn added. “He was nervous about going in, but gradually the volunteer got him to feel more comfortable, and before long he was happy to be in there, and enjoyed reading and the whole experience of it.”

David is a young volunteer who has been in the befriending project for around 18 months. Here he explains how he got involved, and what the experience has given him.

“I came in to the project because I fancied doing something with my spare time, but I wasn’t sure what. I saw an advert for the Children’s Panel and I thought about trying to get involved with that, but I have a friend who suggested trying this first. So I got the number from him, came up to see Lynn Tulloch and had a chat with her. She filled me in on the details and I thought this was exactly what I was looking for, so it went from there.

“First of all we did the training course and that was excellent. I think everyone should have to do that training – it’s a real eye-opener, and it makes you think in different ways. It makes you be more aware even of your own personal skills. It takes in things like managing conflict, looking at other people in a different light, drugs and alcohol awareness. The whole course was really good, and it sets you up well for going into the befriending. Initially I was a bit nervous about it, but once I did the training I felt pretty confident that I can get on with it.

“To this point befriending is one of the best things I’ve ever done to be honest with you. I’ve got a lot out of it. You find yourself doing unusual things – even just going to the pictures to see kids’ films and stuff. It gets you out and about doing different things
You get a lot of enjoyment from it.

“My match has got a lot from it too. He doesn’t like crowds, he doesn’t like being centre of attention and he’s quite shy, but he’s come on a great bit.

“You have to remember that you’re not going in to this to solve your befriender’s life problems. You’re not there to make everything alright. You’re just there to have a bit of fun with them, to make their life a little bit easier and a little bit better.

“I don’t think anyone should be shy of not being able to do it. There’s no real pressure with it you just go and try to have fun. It’s very flexible and laid back. You just arrange it around yourselves. Lynn and the team also match you really well. They’re not going to put you with someone they don’t think you’ll get on with. That was the beauty of my match – we just got on so well – and I think that was a lot to do with them being so careful at choosing. And even if you did get matched up with someone and it didn’t work out, you can be re-matched. You can’t really fail with it.

“Anybody that’s looking for a bit of a challenge, if they’ve got some spare time, rather than sitting at home watching the telly you can get out and be doing different things. It’s really rewarding, and the training’s well worth doing. I think the satisfaction you get out of it – it’s worth doing it for that. You go out and have a good meeting – he’s enjoyed himself, you’ve enjoyed yourself, it’s a two-way thing – you come back and you feel excellent.”

Meetings between volunteers and young people will usually be either weekly or fortnightly, and last anywhere between one and four hours, depending on what they are going to do. Schedules will be very flexible, and will be led by agreement between the two. It could be a Monday afternoon one week and a Saturday morning the next. Timing and balance are worked out between the young person and the volunteer. Sometimes the young person will take the lead straight away and make suggestions about what they want to do and when, and sometimes increasing responsibility for decision-making will become a part of the process.

“Young people involved in the scheme may not be accessing or experiencing many things” said Lynn, “so this is a good chance to find things that they enjoy doing. Even if it’s something the volunteer doesn’t know or isn’t good at – it can be a learning situation, with the young person taking the lead. That is potentially very empowering.”

For a volunteer supporting a young adult who is accessing the scheme, activities can be of a more practical nature, i.e. budgeting, cooking and other skills to assist the young adult on their road to independence within the Shetland community.  It could also be about the volunteer supporting them into employment or education through helping with applications and CVs.  At other times it can be more about exploring alternative, more healthy lifestyle choices and learning what activities are on offer for young adults to take part in within their community – for example, sporting activities, photography, arts and crafts, fishing, etc.

The befriending scheme has been a great success in the nine years that it has been operating, but new adult volunteers are needed to meet with the demand.

“We’re always looking to recruit volunteers” said Roberto. “We have two recruitment drives a year, but we have more demand for volunteers than we have volunteers available. There’s always demand.”

Volunteers will be trained for the role, and must make a minimum of a six month commitment, to ensure some stability for any young person they meet. (Individual “friendships” generally last for six months to a year, with two years being the absolute maximum that anyone will work with an individual young person, to avoid creating a dependency.)

Volunteers choose which age group they would prefer to work with, or they can choose to be flexible. Workers will then look at the skills and personalities of young people and volunteers to try and get the best possible match. “You get a sense during the training how volunteers might fit in” said Lynn. “There is a natural matching process that goes on. Of course we also think about what the young person is needing. So we look at the whole picture before making a match that is comfortable for the volunteer and the young person.”

Volunteers must be over 18, and the recruitment process they must go through is quite stringent because they will be working with vulnerable people. The first step, for anyone interested in becoming a befriender, is to phone the office and arrange to go in and have a chat with a member of staff. If you are still keen you will be asked to fill in an application form, go for an interview, and, if successful, complete a training course. The training is “two way”, in that it allows the volunteer to decide if befriending is really for them, as well as assessing their suitability for the role.

This year there are two training opportunities, one in Lerwick and one, for the first time, in Brae. The Befriending Scheme is a Shetland-wide project, and the workers hope that by offering training in the north mainland they can encourage more people from outlying areas to get involved. It would be of huge benefit to have volunteers throughout the islands, so no one should be discouraged because of their location. The training is free, and travel expenses are provided.

Lynn and Roberto are both hugely enthusiastic about the work that is being done, and about the future of the project. Next year will be the tenth anniversary of the Shetland Befriending Scheme, and each passing year sees it increase in strength and in the positive impact it can offer.    “It’s been really lovely to see the project grow and expand” said Lynn, “and it’s great that we are able to support young people and young adults positively in our own community. We recently had our 150th match with the scheme, in June 2009, and will hopefully continue to grow to meet demand in the future”.


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