Mentoring project with an admirable goal

6th April 2012 at 01:00
PlusOne, a scheme run by YMCA Scotland, trains and pairs ordinary, compassionate people with disaffected youths. The results are life-changing, writes Jean McLeish

Fourteen-year-old Stephen Dillon has gone from zero to hero in a remarkably short space of time. The Fife teenager was on a downward spiral until he met another football fan - 24-year-old Owen Forbes.

Owen had volunteered to take part in PlusOne, a mentoring project run by YMCA Scotland. It recruits and trains ordinary people to help vulnerable children in their community get their lives back on track. Despite supporting different football teams, Stephen and Owen get on famously.

PlusOne was launched as a two-year pilot project with 60 Scottish schoolchildren in Fife, Perth and Kinross and North Lanarkshire in 2009. Evaluation by the University of Dundee reported outstanding results with significant change in behaviour in six months.

The Scottish government, police and social work services are partners in the programme, which aims to cut youth crime through early intervention targeting 8 to 14-year-olds. The strategy is based on a youth-work approach, with young people agreeing to the mentoring relationship as a way of building their confidence and trust and encouraging them to think more about the choices they make.

Children come to the scheme through local authority multi-agency referral groups, mostly because of exclusion from school, offending or not coping at school because of problems at home. Within six months, 86 per cent of children mentored by volunteers from their communities showed significant improvement in their behaviour and attitude to offending.

Evaluation acknowledged this as a cost-effective way of reducing youth offending and the likelihood of young people graduating to crime as adults. A Social Return on Investment report by Haldane Associates concluded PlusOne had generated social value of more than pound;1.05 million for an investment of just under pound;108,000.

Since primary school, Stephen's attendance had been poor and there were significant gaps in his learning, as one of his teachers, Monica Simpson, explains.

"Fourteen months ago, before Owen, we had a boy who was completely disengaged with education, who had a very difficult home life, who was offending in the community and who was on a real path of self- destruction," says the faculty head of pupil support at Viewforth High in Kirkcaldy. "He had really quite low self-esteem and was not caring about himself, never mind what anyone else was thinking."

The school developed a package tailored to Stephen's needs, in line with Fife Council policy for children struggling with attendance or problems at home.

This is one of the smallest secondary schools in Scotland, with fewer than 400 pupils in a mixed catchment area with pockets of multiple deprivation. Mrs Simpson knows every child she meets along these corridors by name.

The multi-agency school liaison group at Viewforth identifies children like Stephen who need help coping. So after second year, Stephen started one day a week on a new course for third-years at Adam Smith College.

The focus was on literacy and numeracy, practical subjects like technical and home economics, as well as life skills such as confidence-building. Back at school, he had one-to-one tuition from pupil support and now has five Access qualifications and a place in college for next year.

The YMCA became involved through the school liaison group, introducing Owen as a mentor to Stephen and launching a relationship that has turned Stephen's life around. Everyone involved has remarked on the boy's transformation. And no one is more thrilled than his mum, who feels as if she has won the lottery.

Her son is now a happier, confident and caring teenager with qualifications and plans to become a youth worker. He is back on track with his school work and will continue at college three days a week after the summer.

Through the YMCA, Stephen is embarking on his Duke of Edinburgh Award and a sports leadership coaching certificate. He has a bronze Youth Achievement Award and with his Millennium Volunteering must have clocked up enough hours to expect an invite to the Queen's garden party.

It no doubt grieves him that it took a Rangers fan to kick him into touch, but he's more than happy to give Owen credit. "He's taken me off the streets, he's shown me a new environment - it's just been amazing," says the teenager.

"I wasn't going to school, I just kept on getting into bother, fighting a lot. Once I met Owen, he showed me a new path. Mum's really impressed since it all changed. When I was with my friends they were always egging me on to fight, so I was getting involved in fighting and vandalising and stuff like that," he admits.

Owen's an unlikely hero - slightly built, he's about the same height as Stephen and just 10 years older. He looks more like an older brother or a pal than a father figure. But he's laid back, with a quick sense of humour, and the two have found common ground following Raith Rovers.

Their true allegiances became clear at their first meeting: "I've got a Rangers tattoo on my leg, but when I showed Stephen the tattoo, he pulls out his Celtic schoolbag. So I am like `Oh, here we go'," Owen laughs. "But luckily it gave us something to talk about, even if we were just taking the mick out of each other a wee bit."

Now Raith Rovers has two new followers - on good days: "When they were playing well, we were going every week. They're having a wee bit relegation now, so it's more McDonalds and playing football now," Owen says.

Getting to know Stephen has also been a watershed for Owen, who was a mortgage broker when the two met. "When I was working, doing mortgages, it was boring sitting behind a desk all the time," he explains. "I'm a people person, I like to talk to people, so I looked into volunteering just generally and they put me in touch with the PlusOne scheme."

At first, the two met weekly for an hour or so - then they would organise to go to the golf driving range together, play football or go to the gym.

"I never thought it was having an effect, because you wouldn't think that an hour or so a week would have a big impact on a young person's life," Owen says.

But after six months, he could tell from Stephen's remarks that his input was making a difference. "I could see it was having an effect. And there's nothing better in the world than the feeling you get from knowing you're helping someone."

Getting to know Stephen has also been life-changing for Owen: "It's changed the career I wanted to do, because once I started this I enrolled at college and did an HNC in social sciences. I am looking for jobs in residential childcare or youth work now."

At Stephen's home there are changes, too. He now reads to his three-year- old brother, there are more books in the house and his mum's considering adult learning opportunities.

Volunteers like Owen are recruited and trained by Linda Pearse, the PlusOne programme manager at the YMCA Centre in Kirkcaldy. She also deals with referrals and matches them with mentors, then monitors progress and provides support, working in close partnership with schools, police and social work. Building children's confidence so they can move on to become effective contributors, successful learners and responsible citizens is key to the PlusOne ethos.

"It's a great project and it's providing vulnerable young people with a positive role model, someone who is there for them, that they can spend time with. It's just time for them, and the mentor is focusing very much on the young person," says Mrs Pearse.

Mentors range from people in their twenties right through to people in their sixties, she adds: "It's away from school, out in the community, accessing new activities and trying new things, which is good for their confidence and self-esteem - to realise they may have potential to do things they never realised."

Like everyone else, Mrs Pearse is proud of Stephen's success story - his bronze Youth Achievement Award and the hundreds of hours he's put into the Millennium Volunteering Award. "He's a brilliant role model for young people. He has learned loads of new skills and has shown confident leadership skills," she says.

Back at school, Stephen's teacher, Mrs Simpson, acknowledges the key role of his mentor in Stephen's progress. "We can track the re-engagement with school with the development of the relationship with Owen; there is no question. Whenever we have had little blips, Owen has been very good at reinforcing the importance of getting these qualifications. So Stephen has heard a consistent message. And it's not been from me or mum - it's been from this other trusted third person."


YMCA Scotland hopes to extend the PlusOne mentoring programme to as many as a dozen more local authorities across Scotland, if funding is available.

The project has won awards from Scottish Mentoring Network for Most Exciting New Project in 2010 and from YouthLink Scotland for Innovative Team Award in 2011.

Evaluators confirmed mentoring had significantly decreased risks for future offending and shown evidence of building young people's resilience and strengthening their social involvement.

"The evidence is that this works in many cases and that attendance levels have improved, pupils have returned to normal timetables, disruptive behaviour in schools has reduced and exclusions have fallen," their report confirms.

YMCA Scotland's chief executive, Peter Crory, says: "Following the evaluations, we are working with the Scottish government to figure out how we offer this in more locations and we are finishing our application plan at the minute. Obviously, the next big thing is funding."

He says the youth worker relationship and the voluntary nature of the engagement with young people has very quickly established honesty and trust.

"We are creating a very different environment where the young person has to sign up and be willing to participate and be honest in this process. If they don't do that in the beginning, even if they're referred by police, it can't work."

The other difference, he says, is "they're seeing that the agenda a YMCA youth worker brings to the table is only the agenda of the best interests of that young person.

"Whereas other people may be perceived to have an agenda - `I want this young person to get exams' or `I want this young person to stop offending' - we just want them to achieve their full potential. I think the young person sees that very quickly."

Photo by Colin Hattersley: Owen (left) is Stephen's mentor and has helped him to turn his life around.

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