For over a decade, youth work organisation Foróige has been matching socially-minded working people with teenagers that can benefit from an hour or two a week of chat and collaborative activity. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with programme facilitator Sinéad Murphy, as well as programme siblings Martina Lyons and Jamie Halpin, about the project.
For youth work programmes all over the world, the idea of a ‘sibling’ programme has been a mainstay of their services. Pairing working adult volunteers with the experience of a lifetime with young people at a crossroads in theirs has long fostered mutually beneficial relationships, providing the young person with purpose and direction as they move forward with careers and study. On September 8th, Foróige in Cork City will provide training for prospective new big brothers and sisters for their programme, at the project’s headquarters on Watercourse Road. There, potential big siblings will garner experience on both informal and formal levels, regarding the place of their efforts in the wider world of social work in the city.
Programme facilitator Sinéad Murphy gives us some insight into the creation of the programme, explains how the idea found its way to Cork, and how it was implemented not just in the inner-city, but at Foróige clubs around the country. “It came from America, a programme that’s been running there for well over a hundred years at this point. We would have brought it in Ireland in the early-2000s. A pilot programme was set up in Galway in 2003, 2004. We’ve had it in Cork since 2007. The siblings will meet up once a week, usually for an hour or two, to go for a coffee and a chat, or do some fun activities. It’s a commitment for a year: based on studies here and internationally, for the best benefit of a programme for a child, it should be running for a minimum of a year. It’s not something you can dip in and out of – you’re making a commitment to this young person.”
For the programme itself, Foróige liaises with local community organisations and agencies to ascertain young people’s strengths, in order to match them with an adult that can help develop them further. “We don’t seek them out as such – they might come to us through an agency that refer them to us, they might be sent to us through school, through a parent or a youth worker. We have young people from all over the city and parts of the county – it’s not targeted areas, as we don’t want to stigmatise young people over where they’re from, we work with them on the basis of individual need.”
For Murphy, the programme’s reward is in seeing the results of matches, as bigger siblings spend time developing ongoing friendships and mentorships with their charges as their time in the programme moves on. “You can tell from seeing matches, you can see confidence and self-esteem building for a young person when they’re involved. I’ve clearly seen it, in my time working with people, I can see that change. Definitely, it’s very positive in terms of promoting school, and school completion, having a goal regarding what they’d like to do after second level… it definitely does work for young people in terms of development, goal-setting, and helping them with independence and decision-making.”
At present, the programme is in recruitment mode, as the number of children and teenagers seeking mentorship or being referred is beginning to surpass the number of adults currently able to commit. Murphy outlines how people can get involved, and what to expect at training on the 8th. “Contact us directly. We have a Facebook page now, ‘Big Brother Big Sister Cork’, and you can get in touch via our website. We arrange to meet people on an individual basis, where we would chat with them, explain what’s involved, and it goes from there. It’s a stringent recruitment process, because it’s a one-to-one situation, and we have to make sure they’re the right person for the role, really. Interviews, references, garda vetting, big-sibling training and child-protection training. It can be a lot more difficult also, to get male volunteers, but certainly, we’re always, always looking.”
Getting involved with the programme came along at the right time for Jamie Halpin, as his academic career in social work required something a little extra to ground him in his discipline. Working with young people helped broaden his understanding of the demands of his course and the work that would follow. “Originally, I was going to study Social Work in UCC. I met with the director, she recommended that I do some volunteer work before going into it, so that sparked my interest. I went to VolunteerCork on North Main Street, asked for some help with voluntary work, and the Big Brother/Big Sister programme was the one that appealed to me. I contacted them, had an interview with a case worker, and it went from there, and I haven’t looked back.”
Of course, it’s not just a one-way exchange. While the aim is to link up with young people and provide them with direction and encouragement, the perspective that such a relationship can bring to the big sibling bears much consideration, while the supports that are available to him via the programme have helped him in other ways. “Getting involved with the programme is one of the, if not the most, rewarding things I’ve ever done. For me, the main thing is it’s helped me become a far more responsible adult. Spending time with a young person on a weekly basis, biweekly basis, making sure that we’re both on time, because they’re younger, in their teens. Organising with them or a parent regarding where to meet. I always want to have something different, interesting or fun to do. I want to actively listen, then, I suppose, to anything that’s going on for them, good, bad, that’s big in their lives. It was a great way of improving my own socialising too. I’d moved around the country, so finding like-minded mentors (was a big help for settling back down).”
For Big Sister Martha Lyons, once the initial interviews and exams were all done with, the process of getting to work with young people on their personal development was a matter of drawing on her training. Getting herself in the right headspace to be a Big Sister was another matter. “I suppose, sticking with the same time every week to meet with your Little is important, or not going out the night before if you’re meeting your Little the next day. It’s something you do when you can schedule things around it so it doesn’t feel like a burden, you’re excited to do it.” Like Halpin, Lyons’ experience in the programme, working with young people and helping advance their development comes with the upside of getting their perspective, and depending on the young person’s willingness to share, getting into their interests. “I’m quite lucky I have a lot of nieces and nephews roughly the age of my Little, so it wasn’t completely alien. Our parents look at us and think everything we do is out there, but I’m just learning with K-Pop is, what all these PlayStation games are, and I don’t think I’m going to get my head around it! But if she’s interested in it, happy about it, that’s all that matters.”
Getting involved is, as stated, a commitment, and one that requires a lot of thought and planning on the part of potential Big Siblings. Lyons has words of advice for anyone considering giving their time and effort. “Do your research, get stuck in. There’s so much support, and Foróige are so good with support, always on call. Other than that, it’s all down to your Little, what she likes, what she doesn’t like. They will tell you, and you can trust them to tell you!”
For more information on the Big Brother/Big Sister programme, email firstname.lastname@example.org, check out https://www.foroige.ie/volunteer-enquiry, or find Cork Big Brother Big Sister on Facebook.