Katerina and Vicky

Katerina has been a mentor to 13 year old Vicky for just over a year. Vicky is a young carer who lives with her mum in Islington.

I didn’t have any experience with young carers before I was matched with Vicky. I had been volunteering in schools, running CV writing workshops. I was struck by how little the young people I was working with seemed to know about their options for the future. Their ambitions were so clearly shaped by who they knew and the experiences of their families. This resonated with what I had learned when studying psychology, that we are informed by our own experiences and those of the people we know, so it makes sense that the broader your experiences and the more perspectives you can gain on life, the better.

I decided that I wanted to help a young person get a different perspective, and give them a wider view of the opportunities available to them. When I found Friendship Works, I saw that becoming a mentor gave me the chance to do just that. Equally, I was aware that I have my own circle of friends and my own perspectives are limited within that. I wanted to get a fresh view of life, and make a friend outside my own social circle.

I was matched with Vicky in May last year. Before I met her, my caseworker told me that she lives with her mum, who suffers from anxiety and chronic pain disorder and therefore finds it difficult to leave the house. Vicky has been identified as a young carer because when she’s not at school, she is at home looking after her mum, as well as having to meet her own needs and manage some of the household chores.

Like most young carers, Vicky’s home life is very task oriented, and doesn’t leave much time for having fun. Her older sister lives away from the family home, but often visits with her young children, and Vicky sometimes ends up looking after them as well. Because of her health issues, Vicky’s mum finds it difficult to take her out and give her access to new opportunities as much as she would like to.

When I first met Vicky, she was clearly not used to being around new adults and was shy and quiet. However, there was also a bravado about her – she liked to give the impression that she was managing everything and wouldn’t speak openly about the difficulties she faced.

As I got to know her, one of the things I noticed was how her caring responsibilities have given her a more grown up experience of life than most 13 year olds have. I was surprised by the depth of understanding she has about her situation. She loves her mum and wants to do the best for her, but there is also a sense of unfairness about her situation – she is aware that there are some aspects of childhood she is missing out on – and this tension can create a lot of emotional turmoil.

It was clear from the start of our friendship that she was excited by the prospect of going on outings. Over the past year, we have visited lots of new places together, including the Shard, the London Bridge Experience, going on ghost walks, and visiting Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. When we first met and discussed outing ideas, she was adamant that she didn’t want to visit any museums as she considered them boring. However, one week we were in Trafalgar Square and she suggested going to the National Gallery. Soon afterwards, we visited the British Museum and she was fascinated. It’s rewarding for me to see how her opinion is changing over time about certain things and that our friendship is allowing her to widen her experiences. Of course, it’s not just her – I am also getting the chance to visit places in London I’ve never been to before.

The outings remain an important part of our time together, and Vicky still gets excited about visiting new places. Having something to tell her school friends about has given her more confidence as well. However, as friendship has developed over the year, she has also started to talk more openly about the difficulties she faces. There are some weeks when we simply go to the park and chat – something she wouldn’t have wanted in the early stages of our friendship, but now says she really enjoys.

In parallel with her increasing trust in me, I am becoming more confident in my role in as a mentor. In the early days, I felt like it I needed to fix Vicky’s life for her – to give advice about what she should be doing. But I have learned that I’m not there for that. Just being there as someone to talk to; giving her somewhere to express her emotions is enough. I may ask her questions or show her an alternative perspective, but it’s not my job to fix things.

At first, I worried about giving her the ‘right’ answers when she asked me tough questions, but I’m more relaxed about that now. I know it’s ok not to have all the answers – and for her to see that I don’t; I’m happy just to say ‘let me get back to you on that’.

If someone asked me for advice on how to be a friendship mentor to a young carer, it would be this. Firstly – plan well for the time you spend together, but be prepared to be flexible – your plans may need to change.  Remember that a young carer has very limited opportunities to try new things, so whatever you end up doing together, you are going to be giving them access to new experiences; broadening their horizons.

Secondly, I would say don’t be afraid of silence. At first, I felt as if I had to fill the silences – if I asked her a question and got a one word answer, I would jump in and ask more questions,  try to press her for more. But I have learned that if I just stay quiet and wait, then she will offer more when she’s ready. If you want to be there for someone to talk to, you need to give them the time and space to do that.

Finally, I would say that I am really happy I became a mentor. It is great for personal development. I have learned new skills, discovered new places and made a new friend. It is a challenging experience, but very satisfying.