On Friendship, exploring London and what it’s like to be a Friendship Works mentor
I’ve been a mentor to Bella for about a year now. She was 6 when I met her, and living with her aunt in London, because neither of her parents are able to look after her full time. Bella wanted a mentor who was “kind and funny”. She had experienced many more unsettling disruptions than most 6 year olds, and it was felt that she would benefit from having regular contact with someone to talk to, ask questions, and have fun with.
I had decided that I wanted to do some volunteering at weekends. During the week I have a busy and interesting job in the City, but it is not emotionally stimulating and I am often conscious that what I do is fairly meaningless. At work, I am surrounded by terrible warnings about what happens if you lose this more human side, and become too self-important about the number crunching! I am also lucky that my work gives me a comfortable and relatively low-stress life. It was important for me to reconnect with something more real, and I felt the somewhat clichéd need to “give something back to my community” and “be a good person”.
I read about Friendship Works online, and I was immediately drawn to them. I liked the simplicity of the programme — you see the same child every weekend, you have fun together. I liked the fact that they had clearly thought a lot about what they do, and why. They talk about a “child-led service”, they emphasise the need for a long-term commitment (2 years minimum) because they understand that vulnerable children need time to build trust. Their aims are realistic — they focus on the importance of having fun together, exploring new interests, developing life skills and managing challenges. When I made contact with Friendship Works, I was impressed by their rigorous selection and training process, the thought they put into matching mentor and mentee, and the on-going support that they provide through an assigned caseworker.
So, I met Bella last June. I went to her house with Neil (our caseworker, who I have weekly phone calls with, but he doesn’t come on the outings after the first meeting). I was nervous — would she like me? Would it be awkward? Would we have anything to say to each other? I didn’t know many six year olds; I knew it would be weird to shake her hand but I didn’t know how you greet a stranger, aged six, who is meant to be becoming your friend. It turns out it’s OK to just smile and say “hello” and ask them about the picture they’re drawing. We went to a café with Neil and we played cards and talked about the outings we wanted to do together. Bella was funny and chatty and asked lots of questions. She wanted to go swimming, to play in the park, to go ice-skating, and to “have adventures”. After this meeting, I never worried about it being awkward with her. On our first outing together, we went to the park. We played frisbee and went on the swings. We talked about what it would be like if the world was made of marshmallows, and she asked me “who was the first person ever to do a cartwheel?”, and “why are there pigeons?”. I still don’t know! Since then, Bella has asked me loads more questions — from the trivial, to the surreal, to the hugely important and poignant. I often don’t have an answer, but we talk about possible answers together, and sometimes we think and come back to it later. With some of the more important questions, I will talk to Neil and he will help me with the answers, or help me to be OK with that fact that there is no answer, and talking about it and caring about it is enough.
There is something very profound about the long and strangely simple process of building a real friendship with Bella. Of course, we’re not two friends in the usual sense. Our responsibilities to each other aren’t equal in every way, she is 7 and I am 28, so there are differences in what we need and can offer. But, I care deeply about her now and I have been surprised at how “normal” a friendship it has become. I really look forward to seeing Bella every week, and hearing what she’s been up to in between. When I hear a funny joke or see something interesting, I look forward to sharing it with Bella. New experiences and unfamiliar places are much more fun and much less intimidating when I’m with Bella, and I love discussing with her afterwards what we both thought about it.
I’ve said for a while (since before I met Bella), that a good friend is someone who makes you feel braver: when you’re with them, you feel like a better version of yourself, even when they see your vulnerabilities. If you express yourself in a clumsy way, they will be generous and know that it comes from a good place. This is absolutely true of my relationship with Bella, who is positive, curious, observant, open-minded and adventurous. These are great qualities, and I feel like I am able to become these things more and more as I explore London with her. She is also hilarious, and she thinks I’m pretty funny too!
I think a lot about Bella’s future and how important it will be that she has a robust sense of self-worth and an inner resilience to fall back on. I hope that our friendship plays a part in helping her to build these up. I hope that I’ll know her for a very long time so that we can keep learning from each other, figuring out difficult questions together, and making each other laugh.