Watching young people blossom

Watching young people blossom

Story by COTA NSW

‘It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done,’ says Graham Whittaker. ‘I get enormous satisfaction from seeing these children blossom.’

Graham is talking about mentoring with the Raise Foundation, which provides youth mentoring to school students in six states including NSW. Raise stands for: Resilience and relationships; Asking trusted adults for help; Increasing confidence and coping skills; Setting and achieving goals; and Engaging with education and employment.

Graham had worked in the insurance industry and retired relatively young after a corporate takeover. As a teenager he had benefitted from the guidance he received at a church youth group, and he wanted to help other young people.

He volunteered for many years with the Salvation Army as a youth and suicide counsellor, but then the centre he was working at closed down and he was looking for a new project. ‘I saw an ad in a magazine for Raise, but I thought I would be too old,’ he said. ‘In the end I decided to give it a go, and my age hasn’t been mentioned once!’

Potential mentors must undertake compulsory checks, a telephone interview and training in youth mentoring before they start work. Graham says he was a bit worried about the training too. ‘I hadn’t done anything like that since I left school,’ he said, ‘but in the end I loved it!’

The program generally operates with year 8 and 9 students, and each mentor works with one mentee for the entire year. Mentors and mentees are matched after an initial group meeting attended by all the potential mentors and mentees at each school.

Likely mentees are students who have been identified by the school as not reaching their potential. Graham says the level of interest tends to increase once the students realise that it will get them out of school for a while!

The mentors spend an hour per week with their mentee. They follow a program which guides the sessions, and prompts the mentees to think about themselves and where they’re going with their lives.

The sessions also vary according to the individual needs of the mentee and the events in their life. Some of the students come from challenging family backgrounds, and the mentors provide a more neutral and less emotionally charged environment for them to discuss issues of concern.

Graham has now had four mentees, and has seen changes in all of them. ‘My first guy, he was initially so introverted that he hardly raised his head,’ he said. ‘By the end of the year he was a changed person, and he said “Graham, thank you for helping me come to believe in myself”. A few years later he was a school prefect.’

Graham encourages everyone to consider the Raise program. ‘People say, “Oh I wouldn’t know what to talk about”, but I tell them you don’t have to say anything,’ he said. ‘You just need to be a good listener, and by the third week the kids will be telling you their whole life story! Or people think they are too old like I did, but you have the life experience that the young people don’t. And the training is excellent in giving you confidence.’

Graham believes that keeping active is the key to successful retirement. He has kept his hand in professionally, and is currently working one day per week at a friend’s insurance brokerage.

He also acts as a Juvenile Support Worker with NSW Police, which involves talking to young people who have been apprehended by police and acting as their responsible adult in interviews when their parents are unavailable. This demands quite a lot of him, with an average of one callout per week, often in the middle of the night and lasting some hours. As a result all his volunteering activities, he was chosen as the Northern Beaches Citizen of the Year in 2019.

For Graham, it’s all part of making the most out of life.