After seeing an increase in the number of children and young people being referred due to poor personal or parental mental health, the team at Befriend a Child developed the Healthy Minds Project. The initiative sits within the wider Befriending programme and aims to better support these children with specially trained volunteers. Charmaine, who volunteers as a befriender within this project, told us more about what her experience has been like so far...

Can you tell us about yourself and how you started your befriending journey?

I started my befriending journey nearly 5 years ago now. I made the initial enquiry because somebody I'd worked with had been a befriender and I loved hearing her stories about the activities she got up to and how much fun she had. It was a little while after that that I finally got around to making that first step and getting in touch with Befriend A Child to find out more.

The process moved quite quickly for me from my initial enquiry to the training, and finally being matched up with my befriendee. In fact, I did my training on a weekend and got my match on Monday! I wish I had more to say about myself but I’m pretty boring! I’m married and work for an energy company called Saipem as an Expeditor. My husband and I don’t have children but we absolutely love our nephews and niece and enjoy being that silly Uncle and Auntie who do all the fun things and grab any chance we get to spend with them.

What do you and your befriendee get up to on your outings?

I try to introduce as many new things as I can for my befriendee – horse riding was a surprise hit when we tried that the first time. Now he would do that all the time if he could! Of course, we do have some favourites that we go back to time and time again! I have always loved going to the cinema and I think this has rubbed off on my befriendee now too, and I think I might be creating a little film critic! We have to rate every movie we see out of 10 afterwards and discuss all our favourite bits.

My befriendee is a big gamer so the Gaming Centre is a firm favourite with him and is a great option if we have something outdoors planned and the weather turns out to be bad.  We really enjoy Bev’s sessions, which are organised through Befriend a Child and try to go to as many of those as we can.

Have you noticed a change in your befriendee since you started your sessions? Do you feel there has been a positive impact on their mental well-being?

Definitely. When I first met my befriendee he was just about to turn 8 and he is now almost 13 and in secondary school so he has changed so much! He was so quiet when we met in that first home meeting – we were both a bit nervous and unsure of how the whole process was going to work but I can’t believe how much he has come out of his shell since then. His confidence has grown so much over the years and to see him do and try new things just amazes me every time. Thinking back to that quiet little boy I met that first day I just never could have imagined he would have found it in himself to give these things a go, but he has and has loved them!

I think it was when lockdown hit that I really realised how much of an impact befriending was having on the mental health of both of us. We kept in regular contact over that time but it wasn’t the same, and seeing that wee face light up when I went to pick him up showed just how important it was to him. Walking definitely wasn’t his favourite thing to do, but he still relished getting out of the house and chatting for a little while about anything and everything.

Do you have any experience with mental health that you think might have helped when supporting your befriendee?

Lockdown affected everyone in so many different ways and some people very close to me really struggled with their mental health, anxiety and depression. My befriendee had always been quite shy and nervous, particularly in new/unknown situations so he also became very anxious during lockdown, and even more so, once we were allowed to start doing things again, so I was definitely able to share those experiences with him and try to make sure he realised he wasn’t the only person feeling that way. I also shared some of the tips that we had picked up in dealing with anxiety. 

Have you had any support and/or training from Befriend a Child to help you better support your young person?

I have had so much support from everyone at Befriend a Child – from all the different training sessions, particularly the Healthy Minds Project training, to simple things like the newsletter helping with outing suggestions. The playscheme and Bev’s Sessions have also been a great support. When I first started volunteering, my befriendee was very shy, and even though we went to the Befriend a Child events he most often just stuck with me. The more he went to these events with the other children, the more comfortable he got and now gets a lot more involved.

What is your favourite part of befriending and what would you say to someone who is considering becoming a volunteer?

I think befriending is one of the best things I have ever done! You have a perfectly acceptable reason to do so many fun and new things (that once you become a grown-up you generally don’t get the chance to do) and even though you might not realise it at the time, you are really helping to change that child’s life. Who knew having some fun for a few hours a month could have such an impact...on both of you. I honestly couldn’t recommend it enough and would encourage anyone who was considering doing it to just make that first contact with Befriend a Child – you won’t regret it!