SAYes Mentoring’s mission to help vulnerable youth find their footing
During a break from work and her studies, UKborn Michelle Potter volunteered as a soccer coach to kids living on the streets in Cape Town. Michelle had always been crazy about sport, and was interested in putting her hardwon Football Association (FA) Coaching Certificate to good use. The last thing she expected was for the experience to become an award-winning dissertation – or change her life. Yet it did both. Michelle came to care deeply about the children she was coaching, but it was when a young man confided that he had no idea how to go about taking the next step in his life that she started to realise there was a bigger problem than the ones she was already seeing: the kids were in care, but when they turned 18 they were legally required to leave the children’s homes. And there was no support
thereafter, and nowhere for them to go.
When you’ve lived in an institution for most of your life, you get used to decisions being made for you, which makes the transition into adulthood that much more difficult. The boy who spoke to Michelle didn’t know where to go or who to turn to. His birthday was coming up, and he felt that his only option would be to live on the streets. Sadly, it’s a view grounded in reality: statistics show that by 2020, 9020000 South Africans will be unemployed, and just over half that number will be young people aged between 18 and 25.
Michelle’s dissertation (in which she compared the challenges facing children in care in SA with those of kids in care in the UK) was so impressive that she received the Froebel Guild Award. Shortly after that, in 2008, she moved to Cape Town to co-found SAYes Mentoring, an NGO that focuses on supporting youth as they make the transition from care to independence. SAYes stands for South African Youth Education for Sustainability, and was co-founded with X-Files actress Gillian Anderson.
The NGO is part of a broader social movement – effective altruism – which applies reason and evidence to benefit others. The mentoring that SAYes offers is carefully structured and focused, way beyond the fuzzy, albeit well-intended, ‘just see what you can do to help’.
It recognises social currency as one of the most important, and yet overlooked, benefits of not growing up in an institution. For instance, SAYes partners with businesses and other non-profits to provide opportunities such as job-shadowing and internships for mentees.
Children in care don’t have access to any of these networks – and it’s this kind of imbalance, more than financial or other help, that SAYes wants to redress. Or, a teen might be interested in becoming involved in theatre, but has never seen a play. It could be as simple as the mentor taking his or her mentee to the theatre, or introducing them to someone who may know someone who may know someone. It’s about providing access to a world that’s closed to them, and offering guidance, advocacy and support.
Many people might want to be mentors but aren’t quite sure how to go about it, which is why the SAYes mentoring platform, Transition to Independent Living (TIL), trains volunteers to become mentors. Having an adult to open up to and offer guidance has had a markedly positive effect on the mentees.
Theresa MannersWood, a first-time mentor, heard about SAYes when she moved to Cape Town.
‘I’d just moved here when I met Rick Nieuwkoop at a braai. He’s from the Netherlands, and since he couldn’t work formally in South Africa, he volunteered to mentor. We became friends and he nagged me to mentor too, but I wanted to get settled in first. Then he invited me to a talk hosted by SAYes, and I was in tears the whole evening. The mentees had filmed their experiences and it broke my heart.
‘I joined in 2017 and went through the training, psychometric testing and interview.’
Matching works like this: the volunteers have a session with the mentees, and there are a few rounds of questions. Mentees then choose their mentors. They prepare to make this selection by exploring their values so that they can choose a suitable mentor, one with the same or similar values.
Mentors are given a framework to work from for each hour-long weekly mentoring session. They discuss things like money and education, and the mentor guides their mentee in setting up goals for themselves, and in finding ways to achieve these goals.
‘Our mentees live in an environment where they aren’t allowed to make decisions for themselves,’ explains Theresa. ‘They’re told what time to wake up, when to have a shower, when to eat. There’s no opportunity for independence, until suddenly they’re forced out of the home. As mentors, we have to teach our mentees small things that we usually take for granted: things like opening a bank account or how to save money are vital, as these are the skills that will help them be independent. A lot of emphasis is put on doing well in school.
As a mentee, I’ve learnt that if you want something to be done you have to do it; you can’t just sit there and cry about it.
‘I’m proud of [my mentee] Bella Vitu in that respect. During matric, she worked to save money, and she has been accepted at Rhodes University. She wants to be a lawyer because she feels the system has let her down.’
Bella is from Angola, and arrived in SA at the age of two. She’s struggling to find funding for her tertiary education because she isn’t a South African citizen and can’t apply for grants or subsidies.
‘Bella says she’s ready to leave the home. I’m so proud of her, but where will she go when she gets to varsity? She’s been saving her pay cheques for university, but the costs of tertiary education are so great, those savings could go to textbooks alone.’
Many mentors and mentees maintain relationships after their year together has come to an end.
‘Sometimes it’s difficult to remain impartial,’ says Theresa. ‘Bella has grown so much since I met her a year ago. As a mentor, I’m allowed only to guide her through things rather than do them for her. I struggle with that sometimes, because she brings out my maternal instincts. I have two sons and no daughters. She’s become a daughter to me; it’s been such a pleasure to see her flourish.’
SAYes Mentoring has changed my life,’ says Bella. ‘When I was two years old, my brother and I went into foster care because my father wasn’t able to support us any longer. In 2005, I was put into Lawrence House, a home for refugees. Two years ago a social worker told us about the SAYes mentoring programme, and we decided to join up.
‘I started the SAYes programme in 2015 when I was 16. I’ve learnt a lot about decision-making, planning and how to become more goal-orientated. At first I had a difficult time opening up to the mentors I had at the time, but with Theresa it was easier. We discussed all sorts of topics, from universities and schooling to personal problems and identity. It’s difficult to have an intimate relationship with my mother because of barriers like language, culture and distance. Theresa helps because she’s like a mother figure to me.
‘Every mentor has helped me a lot, though. They encouraged me to believe in myself. I struggled to do a lot of things on my own because I didn’t believe in my ability to make decisions. I had to learn how to plan and how to put that plan into action. I started by writing these things down and trying to accomplish them one at a time. As Theresa says: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
‘Theresa is easy to speak to. The most difficult part of being a mentee is opening up about my life story… but the only way I was able to overcome this was to open up. As a mentee, I’ve learnt that if you want something to be done you have to do it; you can’t just sit there and cry about it and get mad.
‘The opportunity to have a mentor has been really helpful because you have someone who’s always there for you and who’s constantly involved in your life.
‘My dream is to be a lawyer. My situation is my inspiration; I want to change my future. Now I have to act on my plan to achieve my goals. I feel excited and so much more positive about my life; I’m ready for whatever comes my way. I believe in taking every opportunity you get, and never giving up on your hopes and dreams. There was a time when I gave up on mine; I felt as if things were too difficult to achieve, but I’ve learnt not to do that.’
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT BECOMING
A MENTOR, business partner, non-profit partner or donor, go to www.sayesmentoring.org or call 021 830 0795.
Bella Vitu (left) with her mentor, Theresa Manners-Wood.