I am writing this piece as it is important we reflect, draw breath and celebrate the growing Peer Mentoring Project here at LOOK UK.

How it all began

My name is Ruth and I am LOOK’s Mentor Project Manager. When I began working for LOOK UK in November 2017 I relished meeting the mentors already involved in the project, and loved hearing all about their experiences and their drive to support younger VIPs. At that time our aim at LOOK UK was to grow – we had a few mentees and I needed to grow the project to 20 young people.

Growing the mentoring network

We focussed on building connections. That is the foundation we continue to use, and I am overjoyed to say we now have over 90 trained mentors and the mentor project currently supports 81 young people with a further 40 to begin over the next 2 cohorts. None of this would have been possible without the dedication, communication and willingness of our mentors to share their experiences which lies in the hearts of all those involved. We need to celebrate and thank you all!

My background in youth work

I come from a youth work background. Creating space for people to talk, ask questions and learn more about themselves has been the centre of my work. Continuing these skills and growing them at LOOK has been a delight.

I am reminded every day of the importance of creating and supporting trusting and safe spaces for young people to communicate. I am also thrilled to be learning everyday, myself.

Find Your Tribe

A message that carries through all we do is that of ‘find your tribe’. This theory is explored more in Johan Hari’s Lost Connections. I had not come across this theory before working at LOOK and hearing Charlotte discuss it with mentors introduced me to this fantastic message. We do not need to be defined by our impairments, our genders, our ages or our backgrounds. Yet having time with people who ‘get it’, who know what the challenges and realities are, plus the ways to explore and trouble shoot these is vital. Our tribe at LOOK is people living with visual impairment. You may not regularly get to hang out, learn or live with other people with VI needs yet getting together at LOOK for discussion, support and fun is uplifting and a game changer.

You are a Champion

Mentors will know from our last team meeting that we are putting together a reading list to support ongoing reflection and learning. One of the books we want to celebrate is Marcus Rashford’s ‘You are a champion’. Within this book Marcus explores the theory in the chapter on ‘Finding your team’. He has learned that finding the people who are there to support you, hear you and who will ‘grab your hand if you are reaching out’ has enabled him to achieve more in his own life.

Knowing who these people are and trusting in them is not always straightforward. Yet having a mentor in your corner to celebrate your highs, share ideas to support you with challenges and encourage you if you’re feeling low is a great start to developing your team and your sense of self. Marcus takes this a step further and reflects on how we can say ‘thank you’ to our teams, identifying where they help and how this makes you feel. This is a fantastic point and our next goal at LOOK is to support you all in your reflections as acknowledging your work and support together will be a strengthening next step.

Thank you

I will get us started on reflecting upon thank yous and identifying where people have helped me and how I feel: I am thankful to the whole mentoring community for your honesty and engagement – without the volunteers and young people doing this we would not have a project.

To take this further I want to say thank you to my colleagues from whom I learn every day. Particularly on the mentoring project: Elin, Shani and Lorna work with me to consider project development needs and to harness our systems that make our service work. Doing this with creative, talented and dynamic people makes my role a lot more straightforward. This team have helped me identify specific areas of the project to improve, their perspective is fresh, and they listen to one another and all those involved in the project. I feel energised myself to be working with this team and I feel more capable to deliver the right support to our community with a strong team alongside me. I need to tell them and you all more often that I love working with this team and I am excited by what we are creating together.

More than Mentoring

LOOK UK is more than peer mentoring. There is a whole tribe of parents, carers, volunteers, trustees and wider family members. Some of our older mentees have taken new steps with the LOOK community and we need to give these a big well done:

Ussud was a mentee himself, having focussed on developing the skills and tech knowledge to help him start at Uni. Ussud is now an active mentor with LOOK and is also pursuing making a film about living with VI in addition to his degree studies.

Emily was a mentee and is now at Uni in York studying English Lit. Emily is interested in journalism and we are thrilled to have her working on resource development and chairing a discussion about Uni life as a VIP.

Sarah recently completed on the mentoring project, and whilst studying for a music degree will be getting involved in supporting the online Music Forums. We are delighted to be able to continue to work with Sarah.

All of these are examples of young people using their voice. All our mentees and mentors are doing this, and we need to champion this skill. 

Listening is key – for mentor and mentee

We see Mentees growing in confidence – discussing topics they weren’t sure how to articulate. This can take time; you need to develop trust with your mentor so you can feel ready to put thoughts and questions into words. Keep practicing, start small and manageable. These skills will stand you in great stead. Again, quoting from Marcus on the matter of using your voice “If you listen and learn, and you mix the right people together, great things can happen.” Listening is key here, listen to yourself, listen to your mentor as they ask you further questions and mentors – listen to what your mentee is expressing. 

The future

LOOKing ahead we will create more opportunities for mentees to get together, both online and crossing all fingers and toes for face-to-face options. This summer a group of mentees who share the same eye condition gathered for a discussion session. During that time tips on self advocacy, ambitions and study skills were all discussed. The more we can support opportunities to talk and hear one another the more our project will continue to thrive.

I know there are many injustices and frustrating challenges surrounding living with a VI. We hear of challenges surrounding access to learning and life skills and we know navigating our way through these challenges will be ongoing. We should not deny these problems or gloss over them. Focussing on what we have the power to do and using this to enable developing strength is what we can focus on. We will continue to communicate, build trust and develop skills for VIPs to find their voice and to spend time with the tribe. Well done LOOK UK Family and here’s to the next school year!

LOOK provides a free, tailored peer-mentoring service that connects VI young people with a trained VI mentor to offer advice, support and guidance on subjects such as school, Further & Higher Education, careers, opportunities and independent living, based on the mentor’s own experiences.

You can find out more about our mentoring service, here.