With a little help from my friend
2 April 2019 | Scotland
Befriending scheme matches volunteers with youngsters.
Harry McEwan likes to make his community a better place. For nearly 25 years he has volunteered to help many of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the Dundee area.
Now working with the charity BeFriends, he is one of more than 30 volunteers who provide children aged from five to 18 with a one-to-one befriending service. The idea is to make a positive change in the lives of the children and young people, raise their aspirations and help them realise their full potential.
The adults - who are trained and vetted - take the children on outings to places such as swimming, the zoo or local parks and increasingly, Dundee’s new V&A. Anywhere, in fact, that will get the children, who don’t usually get to experience such activities, out of their usual environment. The trips also give the kids the chance to discuss any problems they might be having.
“We work with children who have faced social isolation, who have mental health or behavioural issues and who have been flagged up to us by a referral agency,” explained Harry. “Our only criterion is that they live in the Dundee postcode.
“These are children who may have never sat in a cafe and had a drink and a conversation. They are children who may have never been out of the city, never been to a farm. Stuff other children take for granted. We give the volunteers a small budget so they can pay for admission fees or buy the child an ice-cream. Though there are many excellent free attractions and activities in Dundee. Through the volunteers, BeFriends works towards outcomes agreed with the funders.
“It is about bringing the children out into the local community and letting them experience day-to-day social interactions that might be lacking in their environment.
“The parents who may be disabled or have mental health problems themselves are very supportive. We help one parent who is agoraphobic so can't leave the house.”
The volunteers range in age from 19 to 70. They get six weeks training and an in-depth background check before they are allowed to work with the children.
“They are really committed,” said Harry. ”For them, they like that sense of giving back. Some have had issues in their own background, so have empathy for these children and know where they are coming from. That helps.”
Robert Benjamin, 39, is currently matched with a 9-year-old boy. The child is on the autistic spectrum. Robert takes him swimming, and acts as a sounding board for the boy. “I was a foster child so know what it is like having issues within the family,” explained Robert. “We go out and he knows he can open up to me in confidence. It is also great for me, as my partner and I don’t have children of our own yet. I would encourage people to get involved. It is so rewarding.”
Relationships often last until the child is 18, though the charity are expanding its services to include individuals up to 25. Harry still meets up with a young man now in his late twenties who he first worked with when he was just 13.
“He was diagnosed with ADHD/ADD and back then the schools had few strategies to deal with the resulting behaviour. They just wanted to medicate him but his mother did not want that.
“I used to take him out with me for some fresh air, or a local pool hall, and let him talk. It was like being with a cross between the Duracell Bunny and Tigger. I really had to have my wits about me.
“But he has grown into a fantastic young man, he is a dad of two and he brings his two children to show me. He tells me I really helped him.”
Harry’s daughter Kirsty has followed him into volunteering for the charity which was recently awarded funding from TSB as part of their Local Community Fund programme.
“It has been a real challenge keeping the charity going, and we are always looking at fundraising ideas. The funds from TSB will go towards taking the children on future mountain bike activity, and team building courses. We are very grateful to all our funders, without whom we simply would not exist.”
Harry added: “There is a waiting list of children, showing considerable unmet demand for the service.”
For more information about volunteering, visit www.befriends.org.uk.