A volunteer at Friendship Works will be a mentor, a good friend, and a role model to the young person they support. Sometimes we might think of these concepts as interchangeable, yet they are actually quite different things. In this blog I wanted to explore the different roles and how we understand them at Friendship Works.
A useful starting point is to define the terms. A role model is someone to look up to; they set a positive example and inspire another person to emulate their best qualities. A mentor is more active in that they use their experiences to provide advice to someone who is in the process of developing. Finally, a friend is somebody who you can confide in, have fun with, and rely on for emotional support.
The relationships between our volunteers and their matches involve a mix of these elements. Because our volunteers are stable and compassionate adults, many children will naturally tend to look up to them as a role model. Additionally, our volunteers often share their wisdom or insights with their young person, and occasionally offer some advice. We do stress to our volunteers that their role is not to “fix” problems or tell their young person what they should do, but there is certainly a mentoring component. We even refer to our volunteers as “mentors”.
But clearly the strongest element of their relationships – as our name suggests – is friendship. On a weekly basis, what our volunteers provide is a fun activity, a listening ear, and emotional support, which is exactly how any other healthy friendship works. A good friendship is mutually-beneficial; our volunteers and the young person that they support both get a lot out of the relationship, albeit in very different ways. And any true friendship will sometimes encompass a mentoring or role modelling function. Most people can draw on their own experiences to remember a time when they sought advice or guidance from a more experienced friend, or were encouraged to better themselves by following a friend’s positive example.
For all the conceptual grappling about how to describe the role of our volunteers, maybe it would be easier and more relatable to just say that they are genuinely good friends to a young person. Intuitively, people do understand what it means to have a genuine friendship. They go beyond the superficial, they find room even during busy periods of our lives, and they stand the test of time.
If you’ve ever had a mentor, how important was the friendship element of the relationship? Can you remember a time when one of your friends mentored you or served as a role model? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.