Being a Kids Company mentor showed me a silent generation who need help
The Guardian, by Flora Simpson
My mentee Joanne (not her real name), is a 17-year-old who lives in East London. The story of her upbringing wouldn’t attract the outrage and vitriol of the Baby P case, or the mocking scorn of a Benefits Street resident. She is neither tabloid fodder nor a rags-to-riches darling of the broadsheets. She is a young person, who at her lowest point found Kids Company, the charity that last week closed its doors amid a political and media furore.
I was introduced to Joanne by Kids Company just over two years ago. Spurred on to volunteer after the London riots, I pictured myself as Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. I was going to help a young person, probably from a gang, and I was going to turn their life around and secure them an Oxford scholarship.
Kids Company was fantastic in swiftly levelling me to reality, without reducing any of my enthusiasm for mentoring. During two intense weekends of training, I remember that when given the scenario of a mentee wolfing down their food at a restaurant and asking how I would react, responding that I would educate them on how to eat politely. The teacher gently explained that fast eating was usually due to being underfed at home, and that it should be reported as a cause for concern. My eyes were duly opened.
As I got to know Joanne and her family, I acclimatised to a new normal that, prior to my mentoring, had been entirely invisible to my middle-class working London life. There were barking dogs, there was chain-smoking, there were tattoos, court orders and unpaid electric bills. The Kids Company’s team was invaluable in educating me in the art of non-judgment. People’s lives are different and while it’s entirely valid to be angry at parents or the government or anyone else who neglects, judgment (and pity, incidentally) serves no one well.
Much has been said about the chaotic administration of the charity and Camila Batmanghelidjh, but my experience as a volunteer did not reflect that. The teams I dealt with were calm, available, humorous and reassuring. I had no direct dealings with Batmanghelidjh, other than randomly bumping into her in a shop one weekend and, upon telling her I was a mentor, receiving a huge hug.
In truth, I found “the system” to be the hardest thing to navigate. With Joanne out of mainstream education and academically years behind where she should be, it was a real struggle to develop a cohesive plan for her to try to progress. There are so many different qualifications and levels, courses, grants, red tape and application forms that I can’t imagine how a family with low reading and writing skills and no computer would ever be able to work out what was best.
I helped get Joanne on a 12-week course, which was fantastic, but on completing it, there was no real suitable follow-up option for her. We are trying again at college, and Joanne is acutely aware that, on the brink of turning 18, she will soon be an adult with fewer options available for free education. But despite the odds stacked against her, she is full of hope and ambition. I have let the Oxford scholarship go. Instead, we read young adult fiction together and she has begun to write her own stories.
With the closure of the charity, some of these mentoring relationships will end. I am aware from regular volunteer meetings that many mentors were not able to afford the weekly expenditure of a trip to the zoo or a museum, and they relied on the £15 allowance given (upon submission of a receipt) to take out their mentee. I will continue to see Joanne, without the protection of Kids Company’s insurance and without the team at the end of the phone.
Joanne isn’t front page news. She is part of a silent, absent generation of young people who became teens under David Cameron and who will make the transition to adulthood on his watch too. Amid the Kids Company postmortem of who did what and who’s to blame, these vulnerable teenagers are at risk of being left behind. I will not let Joanne slip through the net.