Mentors make a difference

Published on 15 September 2014

CAPTION FOR PICTURE: MATES mentor Sam Isaac makes pizzas with Wedderburn College student Keely.

Going to the football or the movies, doing some cooking and gardening or heading off for holidays are simple enough pleasures, but it’s activities such as these which form the cornerstone of an innovative community-led program now flourishing in Loddon Shire.

MATES connects young people in school with a positive volunteer role model who can help them enhance their life experiences through sharing common interests, developing skills and setting targets for their lives.

Wedderburn is the epicentre of the program in Loddon, but smaller versions are already making an impact in Boort, Bridgewater and Inglewood.

Wedderburn MATES started in February last year as the successor to a program called “Links for Life”, aimed at teenagers, run by North Central Local Learning and Employment Network in Charlton.

The network’s Pathways and Partnerships Co-ordinator, Barb Bear, said the organisation saw the need for such a mentoring program some time ago and introduced Links for Life at Wedderburn and Wycheproof in 2009.

“MATES is an acronym for Mentor, Assist, Target, Engage and Skills, as these are all important aspects of the program,” Ms Bear said.

“We decided to transition from Links for Life to the MATES mentoring model developed by the Wimmera Southern Mallee LLEN at Horsham and found it to be a more sustainable model because we could embed it into the schools and it could be run and administered by them.

“The program has grown much bigger than we ever expected – it’s taken off really well in Wedderburn.
 
“These days, Wedderburn and Wycheproof are our two main schools, but we’re also developing MATES Reading Buddies programs at Inglewood and Bridgewater Primary Schools, at Boort District School and at St Mary’s in Inglewood.”

Wedderburn resident Alex Holt is paid for four hours a week to co-ordinate the program at the local P-12 college.

“We offer the program from prep right through to Year 12, while other schools only use it for Year 10s,” Mrs Holt said.

“We wanted to offer the program to kids when they were still young so the mentors could stay with them right through their school life.  

“When we started, we had eight mentors, but now have 27, with 26 kids matched. There have been more kids than that going through, though – some of our mentors have been matched with up to three children.

“All the children are there for different reasons, but, basically, mentoring is a mutually beneficial relationship which involves a more experienced person helping someone less experienced to achieve his or her goals.”

The young people involved at Wedderburn are largely aged five to 19 years, referred by the school, though the program has recently been widened to take in several teenage mums.

Mrs Holt said activities could include “joining in community interest groups, trips to the footy, the movies, galleries or cafes, in-home visits, going on holidays, bike riding, cooking, gardening or going for walks”. 

“It could be anything – you just try to home in on their interests,” she said.

“One mentor took his boy to the men’s shed each week; others organised singing lessons or drove their young person to deb ball practice. 

“One mentor found a pet lamb for her girl and brought it to school for her each week. 

“In May, the MATES students – supported by student leaders and mentors – worked together to prepare and serve the food for a Biggest Morning Tea at Wedderburn College and finished up raising $670 for the Cancer Council.

“Then, at the end of July, we took 40 people on an excursion to the Waubra Wind Farm at the invitation of Acciona Energy, which is a strong supporter of our program.  The company provided lunch and met all expenses.”

Mentors must be free to meet with their young person for at least one hour a week or two hours a fortnight for at least 12 months.

They need to attend a one-day training session, pass a Working with Children check and come to occasional group activities and briefings with the program co-ordinator.

“Our mentors are amazing – they sometimes face quite challenging situations,” Mrs Holt said.

“They basically range in age from their early forties to 80, though we have recently had four university students join us.

“Those four are all past Wedderburn College students, all were school leaders and all have proven to be excellent role models, working particularly well with our teenagers who have problems with social media.“All our volunteers are just people who care about kids. 

Many are retired, so they probably have more time than others, but there’s definitely a need for more helpers.

“There’s no doubt it’s working – through the program, we’ve certainly seen school attendance improving and social confidence increase dramatically.”

Current funding for the scheme has come from Loddon Shire Council under a five-year commitment ($2,000), Acciona Energy ($1,500), the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal ($3,000) and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs ($2,000).