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The Belong Blog


Celebrating Belong's Volunteer Mentors

Since its launch in 2010, Belong’s mentoring schemes have supported children, young people and adults impacted by crime across the UK. Through mentoring, mentees reduce reoffending, improve their emotional and mental health, report improved relationships, and improve their access to education, training and employment. Belong’s skilled and passionate volunteers are at the heart of our mentoring interventions.

But what do prison mentors really do? Who volunteers to be a mentor? Why do they do it?

I spoke with Cynthia, one of Belong’s volunteer mentors, to find out what motivates her and how she loves her mentoring sessions to be full of belly laughs, fitness and sometimes a cheeky nandos!

After retiring from a busy career in the NHS, Cynthia wanted to keep working with young people and to do something to help people to develop. After searching on google for mentoring schemes, she found out about Belong, and got in touch to enquire about volunteering with young people in prison.

“When I heard back from Belong, I nearly fell of my chair, I was so excited”

Outside of being a volunteer mentor, Cynthia is a busy mum of two. She has a passion for travelling, having explored Columbia, Malawi and Jamaica. She loves learning about other cultures, and has developed an appreciation of diversity through her travels.

She looks after her own mental health with fitness, following a strict workout plan three times a week

“Fitness can give you a positive focus. When you start doing it, you think “I can’t do this”, and every day you add a little bit and get better and better. That’s how I take my life”

After being accepted onto the scheme, she went through security DBS checks and prepared herself for her training. Belong’s mentor training provides volunteers with everything that they need to know to be confident, skilled mentors. the training involves three sessions with other volunteer mentors. Topics we explore together include prison and probation systems, confidentiality and safeguarding, and the psychosocial challenges faced by some of our mentees.

Cynthia admits that she was nervous before attending the training, unsure of what to expect in a prison, or what she was getting herself into. Cynthia described how her first training group was with 13 people, all from a diverse range of backgrounds, but all with one thing in common. They wanted to help people.

“That session and group I was with was excellent. Any questions were answered naturally and without judgement. The training with great. The booklet we were given is really useful and I still use it now, it is my bible! In the training, they go through every little bit about what you might experience when you become a mentor. It’s real, it’s exactly how it is…
In came the Belong Practitioners, and I thought “I’m home”. These are real people, helping people who need help. I sat there, looked around the table and thought, “this is me”.

In a mentors first initial meeting, mentors are supported by a Belong Practitioner, who will introduce you to your mentee and support you in your first mentoring session. Cynthia describes how over time, she has developed her own style of mentoring.

“At the beginning of a mentoring session, I greet them, and let them have a few minutes to relax, moan, be themselves. For many it is the safest place they are going to be to be able to let themselves go in prison. I let them tell their story, in their own time. Some people get emotional, and others take much longer to open up and trust you. Then we start. You have to let people be themselves. If you try to mould them into your perfect life, it doesn’t work”

Mentoring isn’t without its challenges. The people that Cynthia has supported have experienced setbacks such as mental health crisis, substance misuse issues and family/relationship breakdowns. Cynthia works through issues with mentees by having patience, and persevering. She says the key is to be consistent. Stick to your promises and keep turning up! Cynthia has gone above and beyond, once travelling for hours across the UK to visit her mentee who had been placed in approved premises hours away from his family and friends.

“The challenge is that sometimes they are told to be there, they think that you don’t want to be there, and that you are part of the system. The challenge is how to get above that and show people I’m here voluntarily, that I want to help, I want to be there”.

Spending the time to work through issues and overcome barriers is worth it when you see that you have contributed to somebody’s journey to change their life. Cynthia stresses how much mentees look forward to the session, and tell her how much the hour means to them.

“One of my mentees was a young man with mental health issues. For a long time he didn’t trust me, but I kept turning up, and the relationship that we developed was amazing. He would tell me about his relationships and family, how he had gotten into the situation, the mistakes that he had made, and how he wants to learn. From that day I thought ‘you want to change your life’. He had a crisis in prison, but I was able to support him through that and sit in some of his other sessions in prison to encourage him to attend. I would tell him ‘You’re an intelligent man, let them see your intelligence’. When he was in prison, I was in contact with his mum. She was away and not able to visit or call the prison easily, but I was able to help to bridge the gap between them.
To this day, I’m still in contact with him. He’s out of prison, he’s applied for a job, and we are due to meet up."

Meeting up with mentees isn’t always about CV writing and practical appointments. After meeting up with one mentee upon release, Cynthia and her mentee celebrated the milestone by sharing a nandos together, which she describes as one of her best mentoring memories.

“The best bit for me is when mentees really do a belly laugh. That is amazing. When someone does a belly laugh in your company, you know they are 100 percent comfortable!”

Mentoring is a two way relationship, where both parties have the opportunity to learn and grow from one another.

“I’ve learned never judge a book by its cover. Everybody’s story is different. Their behaviour stems from something that has happened in their childhood. I’ve learned to have the ability to listen or to not judge them, to let them be themselves, it’s a brilliant learning”.

We would like to say an enormous thank you to Cynthia and to all of our volunteer mentors for the support that they offer.

Belong currently deliver mentoring to children, young people and adults in custody, in the community, and remotely, UK wide. If you’ve been inspired by Cynthia’s story and would like to find out more about becoming a mentor, then get in touch by sending us an email to enquiries@belonglondon.com

If you would like to donate to help us to keep our mentoring schemes running, then you can do so here. Just £10 can help cover a volunteer’s travel expenses for one month
https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/13515#!/DonationDetails