Mentoring Australia

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David White, Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters Australia, is concerned that not enough men volunteer in the community. He finds it frustrating that only 20 per cent of volunteer inquiries received by the national mentoring program are males, when 90 per cent of young people waiting to be matched to a mentor are boys.

White, who started the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) program in Melbourne in 1982, struggles to understand why male volunteers do not come forward.

‘I think they’re fearful of commitment, or perhaps they feel that they can’t contribute and don’t have much to offer’, he says. ‘They need to reassess that because they can and they do. They don’t have to be saints or be particularly insightful. They just have to be with the young person and be reliable and trustworthy.’

With the recent surge of interest in mentoring, White is hoping that men will finally meet the challenge. He welcomes increased media coverage spurred by the Labor Party’s national mentoring policy and the Coalition Government’s Mentor Marketplace program.

However, he quickly points out that growing attention to the idea of ‘fatherless boys’ or the lack of male role models should not be a judgment on single mothers.

He says, ‘the greatest mistake that most people make about mentoring, especially for boys, is that a sole parent family headed by the mother is inadequate for the well-balanced development of a young boy. That’s an absolute fallacy. There are many such families that are operating effectively.’

White explains that Big Brothers Big Sisters receives many referrals for boys because some mothers recognise that their sons are suffering in some way from lack of contact with males. He suggests that this does not mean families require a male figure, and in some cases it is better for parents to separate than for the family to continue in an unstable situation.

‘I probably get a skewed view of men, after more than 20 years of being involved in mentoring’, White admits. ‘I do feel that the male side of the species has let the family down on a regular basis. A lot of the women who come to us are sick of men—they have been used and abused too often.’

According to White, these mothers realise that, without having to seek a relationship with a man, they could provide their children with a supportive adult who would fill the need for connection. He clarifies that the volunteer mentors are not replacement fathers or mothers, nor are they meant to take on the role of teachers, police officers or social workers. He argues that, in fact, for young people under the child protection system, the ‘big brother’ or ‘big sister’ may be the only adult in their lives who is not paid to be with them, yet is consistently accessible over a lengthy period of time.

‘This is not insignificant’, White says. ‘Mentoring is far more than a feel-good, friendly little program. This is about major change, where a young person moves forward and is able to understand himself in a way that an army of professionals has never been able to.’

He observes that perceptions of mentoring have changed enormously in the last four years. Research overseas, mainly from Canada and the United States, has bolstered the long-held view that mentoring offers many benefits to individuals and communities. Similar research has yet to be conducted in Australia.
‘It’s expensive, longitudinal, and difficult to measure’, says White, ‘especially if we’re looking at the community-based model.’ While he considers research important, he says that he also feels ‘impatient’ about the issue.

‘We live in a community that has to prove everything before we do anything’, he explains. ‘I’m not anti-intellectual or anti-research or anti-accountability. However, with something like this, I think we could put a lot of money into researching the bleeding obvious.’

White has instead spent his energy on developing a national strategy for mentoring. Together with the Smith Family and the Dusseldorp Skills Forum, Big Brothers Big Sisters Australia commissioned a report which was released in May this year.

‘We felt that as the debate was starting to become public, there was no focus to it,’ White says. The group believed that mentoring needed to be presented in its own right, not as something that would merely enhance areas such as education or juvenile justice.

The resulting strategy builds the case for a separate government department—and budget—for mentoring. It has been criticised for its bureaucratic approach.
‘It probably does mean that we are seeking an increase in bureaucracy’, White responds. ‘But we’re actually trying to build a bureaucracy that can focus services and allow mentoring to be recognised as an independent service to young people and families.’

He explains that because mentoring adapts to the needs of the young person and crosses a range of departments such as child protection, juvenile justice, and youth services, funding has been difficult to come by. ‘Where does the mentoring program go to seek funds when it’s not enough of any one part of the current bureaucracy?’, he argues.

On the other hand, White also senses that governments are beginning to realise that they might be able to respond to a range of different needs within a person if they focus on mentoring. It is not just about money for programs, though. White emphasises that government ought to encourage debate and assist in the development of strategies and models.

However, he cautions against governments actually running programs. White believes that it would be inappropriate for a number of reasons: ‘Mentoring is long term; it’s not focused on outcome. It requires a level of judgment on the suitability of mentors, involves volunteers who need to be sustained, and requires local knowledge and local links.’ In other words, it is a job that is better suited to non-government organisations.

Beyond the policy debates, community based mentoring is about building the relationships that make it possible for young people in need to break the cycle of despair and poverty.

‘It’s about improving how a young person feels about himself’, says White. ‘A significant, trusting relationship can do that. It gives them a sense of identity and belonging when someone who is connected to the community is loyal to them and listens to them. They realise that the world around them is not quite so foreign as they first thought.’

Moreover, mentoring is not a one-way street. White constantly hears volunteer mentors say that they get more out of the relationship than their little brothers or sisters do. ‘It’s a movement, if you like, of drawing communities together’, he says. ‘People who wouldn’t normally be in touch with each other begin to break down judgments as a result.’

He recounts the story of a ‘big brother’ in Adelaide who used to feel apprehensive when walking past a group of young people at a shopping centre. ‘After he was matched to a boy who came from the area, he felt a lot more confident. He was no longer fearful because he understood them better than he had before.’ 

Fatima Measham is student, youth worker, freelance writer and has previously worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters Australia.



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The article was very insightful. I like it. Continue this good work. May the good Lord bless you abundantly.
Simon Peter | 07 December 2009


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