The power of friendship

Robbie McPherson is Manager of the YWCA's Big Sister/Big Brother Program which has matched hundreds of young people with adult mentors over the past 20 years.

Six years ago I was working as a technical writer and feeling the need to spend more time with people and less with computers. I approached the NSW Volunteers Center and asked what might fulfil my interest in working with young people. Having a strong belief in the power of relationships, I was particularly interested to learn about the Big Brother program, which involves working one-on-one with a young person.

I was matched with a Little Brother, who was 14 at the time and turns 21 this year. For the first four years we spent some time together every week. He is Aboriginal, and like many Aboriginals his life was quite a struggle when we first met, and it still is. Like most volunteers entering the program, I had a bit of a fantasy that I was going to have a huge impact on the child's life and everything would turn out rosy. I have been there for him through some very tough times, and I know that has made a difference in his life. I'm certainly aware of how difficult change can be; you can't undo 14 years of experience overnight. But my belief in the power of friendship and the power of relationships is stronger than ever.

Over the years there have been many times I've thought "wow, that was a great moment". There was one time my little brother came along to speak at a volunteer training meeting and spoke about how he had come to realise that life was full of options and he was able to make choices. This wasn't something that I had set about to consciously teach him, it is just something that he picked up from our friendship. If he had a problem I would say okay, what are your options? I would guide him through making an informed choice. He also spoke about how he learned from me about setting limits. I would set limits for him, and he would be expected to set his own limits as well. He learned that the transition from childhood to adulthood requires controlling impulses; not behaving in a way that's a danger to other people, not using alcohol or other drugs irresponsibly, managing money sensibly.

This was the beginning of a major career change for me. I started working for the Big Sister, Big Brother program as a part-time case worker. Soon I realised that this was the career change I had been looking for, and I started working for the program full time. Eventually I became the manager of the program, which now has eight staff. I now have a profession that has some meaning and reflects my values much better than my previous profession.

It has been a steep learning curve for me, as I now recruit volunteers, screen, select and support them, do family assessments, and all other aspects of the program. My experience as a volunteer was very helpful as I understood what it was like from the other side of the fence, especially the volunteers' need for a lot of professional support, emotional encouragement, training and information.

New volunteers go through a three-month program which involves screening and interviews designed to encourage them to reflect on their own experiences. Being in touch with your own experiences in life and your own childhood issues is a crucial element of preparing for the training. There is also a police check, reference checks and psychological profiling. Before being matched there is also a weekend residential training program.

The real learning begins once the Big Brother is matched with a young person. Every relationship is unique, and requires a response based on what is happening in that particular case. Case workers provide a lot of individual support, and there are monthly support groups as well as ongoing skills development training.

Volunteers are asked to commit themselves for twelve months, to ensure reasonable continuity for the children. We ask them to spend a couple of hours a week with their Little Brother. Regularity of contact is more important than the amount of time.

The program provides Big Sisters for girls, and Big Brothers for boys. We cater for children from all sorts of backgrounds, and what all of them need is good adults in their lives. Whether male or female they need adults who are consistent, caring, and trustworthy, and who are not there to constantly be telling the young person what they should or shouldn't be doing, but who provide support, guidance and most importantly friendship.

While 90% of referrals are for boys, 90% of volunteer enquiries are from women. The shortage of male volunteers has meant that we have had to stop even putting boys on the waiting list.

One reason that the majority of referrals are for boys is that there are so many boys growing up in sole mother families without a dad around. Mothers recognise that their boys would really benefit from a positive male role model. The number of sole-parent families is increasing, and sole parents are realising more and more how difficult it is, especially through their child's adolescent years, so the program is more important now than ever before.

I've noticed that more and more of our young people have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and it concerns me that more and more boys in particular are taking Ritalin. There are no doubt some kids who have medical conditions that genuinely need drugs, but the number of kids being treated with drugs is a scandal. It's very easy when things are not going well and kids are acting out to give kids Ritalin or even Prozac as a solution. It's a simplistic solution and it might make our lives easier, but I don't think it's what most of these kids need. There have been many cases of kids being described as uncontrollable, but the volunteers have absolutely no trouble with them, because their needs are being met. I don't blame the parents for this; most of them are doing an amazing job under very difficult circumstances, but it's often desperation that leads them to look for a medical solution, which makes the drug companies very happy. We as a community need to support parents who simply don't know what else to do.

Boys are in trouble. The path from childhood to adulthood is increasingly difficult, and to make that journey they need some good adults by their side. There are so many wonderful men in our community who could so easily be making a great contribution to young people's lives. Men seem to doubt there own abilities unnecessarily; I wish more would take a bit of a risk and enquire about the program.

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