“When I first met Matthew he was frightened to leave the house, very isolated at school, mute and had no friends at all,” explains 28 year old Emma, who has been volunteering as a mentor for over two years. During that time, not only has she seen a huge change in Matthew, now 13, but has also discovered how the friendship has helped her grow in ways she could never have imagined.
“He was quite different to how he is now,” says Emma. “He was very quiet and wouldn’t want to talk on the bus. He wanted to be invisible.” In his relatively short life, Matthew has already experienced trauma unimaginable to most children his age. From the age of four he witnessed his mother suffering years of domestic violence at the hands of his father, who eventually went to prison. His father was released in 2010 and there is currently an injunction in place to stop him having any contact with Matthew until he is 16, which is why all names have been changed in this piece. Despite the injunction, the fear of seeing his dad understandably had a profound effect on Matthew.
“He was petrified he might bump into him, so we couldn’t go to certain areas,” says Emma. “So when we first started we just used to go to the park, play a card game called Uno or go to Macdonald’s. He just wanted to go out and be normal.”
Although Emma’s own childhood was a happy one, she was able to relate to some of Matthew’s anxieties. “I was also a mute as a child,” she explains. “I was never actually diagnosed or anything but looking back, that’s what it was. It took me a long time to speak. I also had a lot of social anxiety, and even at pre-school I had this fear of being left on my own. When a teacher was going through the register I used to get so nervous and as it got closer to my name my heart would start thumping. It’s strange because I’m from such a big family you’d think I’d be really sociable.”
Emma has seven brothers, two sisters and sixteen nieces and nephews. When she found a job as a nursing assistant at a mental health unit in London, she made the decision to leave her home in Essex. Emma missed her family sorely, and it was this which first sparked the idea of becoming a mentor.
Whilst researching she stumbled across Friendship Works, a mentoring charity based in north London which has been pairing up children with adult volunteer mentors for over 30 years.
The concept is a simple one: Friendship Works believes the quality of adult relationships in a child’s life has a profound impact on their development into adulthood and journey through life. Put simply, positive role models mean positive life experiences. The children they work with face a range of difficulties including severe financial hardship, domestic violence, alcohol or drug misuse. Many have parents with mental or physical health problems, or have learning difficulties of some kind themselves.
“Because children often come from such complex backgrounds, mentors are asked to commit to a minimum of two years to give them some consistency and enough time to build the trust that is crucial to the success of any supportive friendship,” says Friendship works CEO Richard Turner. “They are also given training by experts in the field and have a caseworker assigned to them throughout the friendship, to support them every step of the way.”
According to Emma, she started to see a change in Matthew after about six months. “The first thing I noticed was when I got him an oyster card application form. He said thank you to me and he’d never done that before.”
“He will talk on the bus now – not if it’s about something really personal but he will chat on the bus. His eye contact is a lot better and from having no friends he’s got a couple of mates at school now.”
Over the last two years the pair have also managed to venture out of the local park. “We go to Southend once a year for his birthday,” says Emma. “We’ve been to the aquarium, the Imperial War Museum, the cinema and lots of things organised by Friendship Works like Christmas parties.”
In parallel with Matthew’s progress, Emma has also noticed how she has grown in confidence as a result of the friendship. “When I was in the mentoring training I thought maybe I wasn’t good enough,” she recalls. “There was this other guy there who was a bee keeper and I thought ‘I don’t do anything interesting like that!’. The first time I met Matthew it was so nerve wracking as I was worried he wouldn’t like me. I just feel like I’ve become so much more patient as a person and more confident at work too as it has helped me understand what it’s like to be a teenager.”
As Matthew’s 16th birthday nears and his father’s injunction comes to an end, the teenager’s problems are far from over. Mentoring is not a magic wand but a source of additional long-term support for someone who will more than likely experience further challenges in life. Aside from his mum and siblings who will always be there for him, he now also has Emma’s friendship to help him face whatever life throws at him. In return, Emma’s hope is that she has a lifelong friend in Matthew.
“He said I was the second best woman in the world, after his mum!” she laughs. “I can’t imagine not seeing him or him not having him in my life now. You build up such a relationship that I can see myself going to his wedding one day. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done really.”