SAYes Men­tor­ing’s mis­sion to help vul­ner­a­ble youth find their foot­ing

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Lucinda Dord­ley & Tiffany Don­son

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.’


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.

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