I recently finished 12 months as a volunteer mentor with The Kids Network, an amazing organisation that pairs you with a child in your local community for weekly mentoring sessions. I was taken aback by how many new challenges today’s kids face and how transformational the mentoring relationship can be.
My 10-year old mentee’s world revolved primarily around digital experiences, especially in lockdown. She occupied most of her time playing video games, texting with kids from school, and eventually, posting on Tik Tok. All of these activities carry serious risks for children.
She didn’t have an extensive vocabulary, but ‘anxiety’ was a word she used every time I saw her. Many “real world” things were overwhelmingly daunting to her: from learning to swing, to walking (together) out of sight of her house and most of all, to starting secondary school. She had a very hard time focusing in class and constantly feared getting bullied.
At the same time, it was incredibly inspiring and humbling to see life through the eyes of a pre-teen, especially in such a difficult time. My mentee was acutely aware of climate change and took issue with any littering we saw.
As one of 6 siblings, she was incredibly considerate of those around her. When I injured myself at the very start of a special session she had been looking forward to for months, instead of getting upset, she became cheerier than normal and started rattling off thoughts about light-hearted subjects in an obvious effort to get my mind off it.
She once brought a pound coin she’d been saving, eagerly waiting to spend it at the sweet shop, but decided instead to give it to a homeless man we ran into. She never complained about lockdowns. And she always (eventually) with my encouragement started to try new things, including those she was scared of, seldom considering what others would think.
After first meeting her, I really wasn’t sure what kind of impact I’d be able to have on this little girl who seemed distracted and uninterested in talking to me.
It didn’t take long to understand that those behaviours masked a real need for some one-on-one attention. In a city as large as London, my mentee’s world was very small before COVID-19 – her primary school was across the street from home – but it shrunk even further in lockdown when most of her waking hours were spent in front of a screen, often looking at things she lacked the understanding needed to properly contextualise and process.
She told me she waited all week to “go out”, which is how she referred to our sessions. As the months went on, I watched her confidence grow exponentially as she confronted more and more of her fears.
The long-dreaded first day of secondary school came and went and before I knew it, she was spending more time talking about her new “BFFs” and favourite teachers and less time begging to extend our sessions.
My conviction in the value of this year was cemented during one of our last sessions when she uttered “I’m not scared of anything – being scared isn’t for me.” The work of organisations like the Kids Network is transformational for kids at a crucial time in their lives, facing challenges so unlike those that previous generations did. They provide amazing training on what positive mentoring should be and support all throughout the process, including with the trickier challenges around online activity and cyber risk. I highly recommend looking at The Kids Network and considering getting involved as a mentor.