Avoiding the same mistakes
David Clensy meets some of the mentors and their mentees benefiting from a new youth mentoring scheme in Easton
TO see 20-year-old Kiesha Jarvis and 17-year-old Amber James together, laughing and joking, chatting while simultaneously texting their other friends, and gossiping about their circle, they may at first seem like any other pair of friends.
But Kiesha and Amber are living proof of the success of a new mentoring scheme, organised by Bristol charity Community Resolve, under the umbrella of Backing Young Bristol – a multi-agency approach to tackling problems for youngsters in the city.
Kiesha has had her problems in life – a single mum at the age of 17, she is used to surviving on benefits, and knows the mean streets of St Paul's all too well – she's been living in this recognised area of "social deprivation" with her two-and-a-half -year-old son since leaving her parental home a little over a year ago.
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She understands as well as anyone how difficult it can be to find work in the area, and like many of her peers hasn't had regular paid employment since leaving work.
But the Community Resolve charity saw in Kiesha a perfect mentor for another youngster struggling to live in the lowest social strata of the city.
After initiating their Mentoring Plus scheme six months ago, project workers set about finding 30 mentors from within the same community as the young people who had been recognised as being vulnerable, and might potentially benefit from a mentor.
"The idea is simple really," says project co-ordinator Jade Royal. "We just introduce the mentor and the mentee, and then pretty much leave them to support each other – the idea is that within six weeks the mentor will have helped the mentee to get their life back on track.
"Sometimes it's just about a mentor being able to direct their mentee away from the mistakes and pitfalls they made. But it can even just be about finding a mentor who has more confidence, in the hope that the confidence may rub off a little on the mentee – give them permission to raise their aspirations, and give them the enthusiasm to get out there and start making opportunities for themselves."
After meeting Kiesha at a St Paul's youth centre, Jade encouraged her to sign up to the scheme as a mentor.
"I could see she would do it well," she says.
But after meeting Amber, Kiesha soon realised the mentoring could be a two-way process.
"We are coming to the end of our six weeks of mentoring, and I've just tried to be there for Amber, offer her support and guidance," Kiesha says.
"Simple things like helping her to get the benefits to which she is entitled, introducing her to agencies that can help, like Citizens Advice, and even just encouraging her to get out there and take up every opportunity that comes up.
"But I've also come a long way because of Amber – she has given me more confidence."
Amber left school at the age of 15 with no GCSEs, and has never been in full-time paid employment since.
"I got on to a course at the Millpond Youth Centre in Easton, to do some courses in what they called foundation skills – maths and English in particular," Amber says.
"But Kiesha was able to tell me ways that I could use the system more – that there were benefits out there that I didn't even know I could get. She's even helped me get my own flat. It's been brilliant. "
Mentor Plus, provided by the Community Resolve charity, is part of the Backing Young Bristol initiative, which brings together a range of agencies together for the greater good of young people in the city – from Bristol City Council to City of Bristol College; from charities to local businesses, the scheme's primary focus is to get youngsters into work.
Somalia-born Rooda Kulah, 27, from St Paul's, volunteered to become a mentor on the scheme because she "wanted to give something back" to the community that had helped her integrate into Bristol life.
"I was put in touch with a young Somali man Abdi Rashead, who is 19, but was really quite vulnerable.
"He'd not been in the country long when his father remarried, and Abdi didn't get on with his stepmother and had to leave the new family home.
"So he was very much alone, and he just needed someone there to offer him support – it helps so much that I also come from a Somali background, so I can understand how his mind works.
"He's making real progress now, and has got himself on to a number of educational courses that should lead to further opportunities from him in the future."
But Amber and Kiesha couldn't have imagined where the scheme would take them to next.
Jade told Kiesha about a scheme called the Leonardo Da Vinci Programme, a pan-European youth charity, which aims to broaden youngsters' horizons by offering them three-month work placements in foreign countries.
"Jade told me about it because she thought Amber could consider signing up to it," Kiesha says. "But in the end we talked each other into both signing up.
"So in a few weeks I'm going to Spain for three months to do voluntary work with refugees, while Amber is going to Italy to teach English to children from low-income families in Padua.
"We're going to miss each other, but it'll be good for both of us," Kiesha says. "I'll also really miss my little boy. It was a very hard decision, but I decided the best thing was to leave him here with my mum while I go to Spain.
"He's only two, and I know he will have changed a lot by the time I get back – he may not even remember me. But if it gives me some experience that might lead to a full-time career when I come back to this country, then that has to be a good thing."
For more information about the Mentor Plus scheme visit the Community Resolve website at www.communityresolve.org.uk