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We meet with Dionne Walton, Grandmentors Volunteer Manager to find out more about the innovative mentoring scheme which is making huge strides in Ipswich to support those on the edge of leaving care.

The first thing you’ll notice when speaking to Dionne Walton is her obvious passion and pride for the Grandmentoring scheme which she established in Ipswich last year.

Developed as a project by the national charity Volunteering Matters, the innovative “Grandmentors” project has proven to be a reliable way of providing support and guidance to young people who may have experienced challenging life circumstances.

Currently operating in Islington, Hounslow, Folkestone, Stockton and Wiltshire as well as Ipswich, the initiative works in conjunction with Leaving Care teams to match young people aged 16-24 (who are Not in Education, Employment or Training) with a dedicated volunteer mentor over the age of 50.

Lasting up to 12 months, the mentor is on hand to offer weekly sessions to build up the person’s confidence and skill set, helping to ease the transition into adulthood. Because of the inter-generational gap, the mentor can demonstrate positive, healthy relationships and become a role model for those who may have lacked support throughout their life.

“Our care leavers benefit from these sessions because it may be the first time that they have had somebody’s full attention on them for up to two hours” says Dionne with a smile. “Because their mentor isn’t rushing to complete paperwork or head off to see another client, they can open up much more and build a stronger, more trusting relationship.”

Dionne’s enthusiasm for the role is contagious and since implementing making her first official ‘match’ at the end of 2017, she has since successfully partnered 19 young people with mentors and has a surplus of local people volunteering to get involved.

She says “There are big differences in the ways in which the project has worked in different locations. Whilst our London colleagues can run an advert in a local paper and reach hundreds of potential volunteers, in a rural location such as Ipswich we need to work much harder to engage with local people.”

“I spend much of my time going out to local business networking events where I get to speak to people face-to-face about the benefits of volunteering. It’s hugely beneficial because not only do they buy in completely to what we are doing, but they are becoming advocates for us and sharing details of the project with their own colleagues and peers as part of their own community activities.”

When talking about the Grandmentor’s scheme, Dionne is keen to emphasise that the project is run very differently across the country, where Local Authorities have invested in the project and developed it in accordance to their own locality’s needs and behaviours.

“The best thing about this scheme is how flexible it can be” says Dionne. “Our teams have worked closely with Local Authorities to create bespoke projects which work well for their particular regions. What excites me is that as we see more success in each area, we’ll have solid examples of best practice which will allow us to replicate successful projects in similar locations across the country.”

Over the past year, Dionne has worked in close partnership with Suffolk County Council to run the project and she believes that their full support is vital to the project’s success. Sitting alongside the council’s Leaving Care team, Dionne is able to get involved in cases and offer support and advice to fellow social work colleagues as well as invite them to attend low-key events which introduce young people to potential mentors.

“We learnt very quickly that a soft-matching approach works really well for us in Ipswich. For example, we have held several bake offs in our communal areas where we’ve been able to successfully introduce our young people with our volunteer mentors. It was amazing to see them interact without any input from us, and as a result a few people had the confidence to ask for a specific person to be their mentor.”

“As any social worker will know, to see someone who has experienced such hardship take control and have the confidence to identify who they feel would be a positive influence on them is a great thing to see and it’s definitely one of my best moments since getting involved in the project.”

Looking ahead, Dionne is keen to work with colleagues at Volunteering Matters to expand the project nationally. There are currently plans to roll out the initiative in other locations including Waltham Forest.

A benefit of this project is the relative ease in which it can be set up in new areas. Once the Local Authority has given its support, the project can be fully functional within just a few months.

Dionne adds “The hardest part of launching any new project is actually liaising with the Local Authority to agree exactly how it needs to be run within that area. However, once the plan has been agreed, it’s an incredibly quick and easy project to start – not to mention cost effective.”

“The funding tends to be met jointly by the Local Authority and by external partners. We’re continuously looking at new ways to fund these projects which cost in the region of £50,000 to support a minimum of 35 care leavers. In Ipswich, the council has shown huge support for the scheme and have covered half of the cost of the project themselves – something which we are hugely grateful for.”

The success of the scheme speaks for itself. Not only are care leavers actively engaging in the project but in Ipswich, Dionne is starting to see young people self-refer themselves by coming along to local events and asking to be matched with a potential mentor. Dionne suggests that this demonstrates that not only is the approach correct, but it also shows that the actual “product” is working effectively.

Within just six months of engaging with a weekly mentor, the scheme can celebrate the fact that 95% of care leavers were involved in education, employment or training. Compared to the national average of 49% of care leavers, it is clear that this is an effective project for those working with a difficult audience group.

Dionne concludes: “We are hugely ambitious and we’re continually working hard to make sure that the project is working as effectively as it can be. It’s important to us that our care leavers and volunteers are equally benefiting from this scheme so we’re always listening to feedback and looking to see where we can improve.

“I’d like to encourage more social workers to get involved – even if it’s just visiting one of our local events to see what we’re doing. This is a great resource with a proven track record and I’m proud to be a part of this.”

Incorporating Grandmentors into your region


If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, email grandmentors@volunteeringmatters.org.uk

Alternatively, if you would like to incorporate the Grandmentors project in your region, please contact Verna.Chung@volunteeringmatters.org.uk
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