'Uncle' Greg Hile

Mentorship programs have benefits for both the children and adults involved, reports Sean Mooney.

After a week of mixing it with Sydney's high-flyers, competition lawyer Katrina Groshinski likes to wind down by hanging out with a 13-year-old boy whose life is far removed from the crazy hours and office towers of the CBD.

Officially, Michael* is Groshinski's 'Little' and she's his 'Big', for such is the terminology employed by the YWCA NSW Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program. To each other, they're simply friends – an unlikely pairing that just feels right. "I never would have thought that me being matched with a (then) 12-year-old boy was an obvious match, but it has worked so well," says Groshinski.

The program links young people aged seven to 17 with adult mentors aged 20 to 45, so they can spend an hour or so together, three to four times per month, for a minimum of 12 months. Groshinski says she was looking to do volunteering work when she heard about the program. "I don't have any children, and I really like young people," she says. "And I was keen to do something that was more broadly connected to the community." She puts the quality of her match with Michael down to a screening process she admits was "quite full-on". "But I think that at the end of the day, you realise that somebody is entrusting you to look after and have a relationship with their child," she says.

YWCA NSW mentoring programs coordinator Mara Greenwood is unapologetic about the rigorous screening and matching processes in the program. "We spend a lot of time on matching up Bigs and Littles," she says. "We really do try to place a lot of emphasis on the geographic area where the Big and Little live, and we also look at their background, interests, personality types and match accordingly." The former nanny and camp counsellor stresses this process is of utmost importance to the program's success. "Our experience and research shows that if the match isn't right and it ends prematurely, then it's much less beneficial for the young person than not having a mentor at all."

This view is echoed by Michelle Parrish, manager of Aunties & Uncles, an early-intervention mentoring program for children aged up to 12. Here, a 'niece' or 'nephew' will spend substantial time once a month for at least 12 months in an extended-family model. "We never match if we don't think we have a good match," Parrish says. "We don't want to set children up to fail. It's very negative if after six months you have to go to a child and say this hasn't worked."

This attention to detail, combined with low volunteer numbers and a dearth of funding, means these mentoring programs are unable to keep up with demand. Last year, the 37-year-old Aunties & Uncles program only just managed to avoid closure. While the program is now under the Wesley Dalmar Children's Services umbrella, it still has more than 180 children on its waiting list. "Some of those children won't ever get matched," laments Parrish. "We just don't have enough mentors coming through and we also need donations – if we did get another 100 volunteers, we'd be limited with what we could do, as it costs about $1900 to process, train and approve each one." Big Brothers Big Sisters also has a substantial waiting list of Littles.

The young people helped by these mentoring programs face a variety of challenges, such as living in low-income households, having parents with psychiatric illness, intellectual disability or an addiction, and experiencing family breakdown. They may be referred to the programs by parents, grandparents, schools, youth and family-support agencies, foster-care agencies or child-protection services. Despite the shortfall in dollars and mentors, the two programs avoid competing for the same 'audience' by appealing to potential mentors of different ages and family circumstances.

Mara Greenwood is quite clear about who Big Brothers Big Sisters wishes to recruit. "They need to be between 20 and 45 and have access to a vehicle," she says. "We are quite happy to refer some of those older than the 45 cut-off to Aunties & Uncles." Bigs are more often than not single and/or childless, allowing them to spend one-on-one time with a Little every week without having to forgo time with their own children. By contrast, Parrish says most Aunties and Uncles are couples, and contact is usually for longer periods on a monthly basis. "We do get single Aunties and Uncles, but it's usually a family unit, and their own children end up becoming peer mentors as well," she says. "We case-manage and match for three years, but we encourage it to become an extended family that goes on for 10, 15, 20 years – we have some beautiful stories where that has happened."

Greg and Maree Hile have been Uncle and Auntie to 13-year-old Will* for almost five years. Greg (pictured) says the Terrigal couple had reached a point in their lives when they realised they had been "very fortunate on a number of fronts". "We wanted to get involved in the community," he says. "But it's not easy to find an outlet to do that, so we thought Aunties & Uncles might be a good way to get involved."

Greg and Maree have two children of their own, Jack (14) and Ellen (19). Greg says the program does not adversely affect a volunteer's own family. "It's just a small extension on what you have anyway," he says, "and you broaden the community side of your family without doing a great deal."

Will has spent many weekends with the Hiles family, often staying overnight and taking part in whatever they have planned. Will's mum Lisa* says her son's involvement with Greg Hile has benefited him in many ways. "He didn't have any male role models in his life, and Greg does things a dad should do with his kids; takes them camping, a whole range of activities," she says. Rewards also stem from Will's involvement in a strong family unit. "Greg's very respectful, a good role model and a great dad," she says. "And Jack is a great kid – the sort you want your own son to be hanging out with."

Mara Greenwood says participants in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program also do "everyday things". "Especially things the Little is really good at, so they can teach the Big to do them," she says. Katrina Groshinski believes deciding what to do should be a joint exercise. "Every week my Little and I discuss what we want to do in the future: maybe hiking in the park, playing soccer or going to the art gallery." This two-way relationship has been beneficial for Michael during a challenging time, says Groshinski. "He's just changed from primary to high school, which is one of the reasons for having the match, and it's been great for him; he's enjoying it a lot. It's about being another adult in their life who they know supports them and who they can trust."

Michael's mother Kylie* says she has seen an increase in her son's self-confidence. "He was quite a shy little boy, but experiencing the joy of friendship and one-to-one time together with Katrina, he always comes home with a big smile," she says. "He's definitely become happier, more confident and, what's more, he's proud of his achievements."

Michelle Parrish believes mentoring is all about keeping families together through early intervention and meaningful interaction. "It's beautiful because you can step back a bit and let a real relationship develop between a child and an adult that isn't clinical, isn't social work, isn't therapy," she says. "It's where the real work and healing is done."

*Name has been changed

This article was first published in the December 2011/January 2012 edition of Sydney's Child.

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