“That’s how we learn, we all make mistakes and then learn from them”.

Pam – an Older Friend volunteer with The Friendship Project for Children was also a Big Brother/Big Sister in the USA (the Project on which The Friendship Project for Children is based). Here is her journey from being a volunteer in her mid-twenties to now in retirement.

I heard about a project in the USA called Big Brothers/Big Sisters when I was in my mid-twenties. The basis of the project was that you volunteered to spend time with a child from a single parent/child in need family and that the child was the same gender as you. I thought the project sounded interesting and I decided to become a ‘Big Sister’. I was matched with my Little Sister who was eight years old and from a single parent family in challenging circumstances. One of the places we enjoyed going to was to my Grandparents farm for picnics, barbeques and walks in the woods. We also enjoyed going swimming, the cinema and eating out at fast food restaurants. I learned a lot of parenting skills which were very useful when I started my own family about six years into our relationship. She was from a third generation family in need of support and became the first in her family to hold a job for any length of time and also to graduate from high school (my proudest moment was when I received the invitation!). We saw each other on a weekly basis until she graduated from the program at 16, but still stayed in touch until I moved to England. The last time we spoke, she was working and had a new baby and had moved out of the family home. I feel our relationship made a huge difference to her life and taught her many things she wouldn’t have learned at home: managing money, cooking and looking after herself, saving, holding a job, getting an education and being able to break out of the welfare system.

Once I retired, I found I had some extra time on my hands and saw an advertisement for The Friendship Project for Children. I remembered how much I enjoyed my time with my Little Sister and what a huge difference it made to her life, so I decided to volunteer. It is much more structured and organised than when I volunteered previously and that’s a really positive change for me. There is frequent contact from my Area Co-ordinator, someone at the end of the phone if I have question, organised events for myself and my Younger Friend and lots of encouragement. I can also claim mileage and some of my expenses so I’m not out of pocket, which is great for me as being retired I have limited funds.

I met my Younger Friend nearly a year ago and already I can see lots of positive changes. In the beginning she could barely speak to me, but now she greets me with a smile when I collect her and chats away about her latest news at school and her friendships. We have done lots of cooking together and she made her first cake on her own a couple of months ago, including making icing and decorating. When we first started cooking I couldn’t persuade her to break an egg to add to the mixture and when I managed to get her to try, the egg went everywhere. I laughed and said: “That’s how we learn, we all make mistakes and then learn from them”. We cleaned it up and I persuaded her to have another go, which was successful. When we finished and put the mixture into the oven, her little voice said “I learned from my mistake and added the eggs to the cake mixture”. I was able to agree and tell her what a good job she had done – I think that memory will stay with me for a very long time.

Over the summer we went on lots of picnics to local playgrounds, which my Younger Friend really enjoys. She is also a keen reader, so I took her to the local library and encouraged her to get a library card, then enrolled her in the summer reading scheme which she completed successfully (and even got a medal!). Now, a regular part of our routine is a weekly trip to the library for new books. At first, she stuck with books and authors she knew from school, but now she is branching out a bit and trying new authors, which is great. In the Winter, I discovered she loved playing games and puzzles so often we cooked and then played together while our efforts were in the oven. We also went to the local pantomime as she had never been to the theatre, which was quite an experience! I don’t think she knew what to expect and certainly didn’t shout out at the ‘baddie’ but there were lots of smiles and it got a ‘thumbs up’ at the end of the evening.

At the moment, we can’t see each other due to the lockdown but I have tried a few things to make sure my Younger Friend knows I am thinking about her; and we will get back to normal as soon as we get the all clear. I sent her a letter with a self addressed and stamped envelope so she could write to me if she chose and asked for a wish list of books. I have sent two books from a new author that combines a bit of adventure and cooking, which I thought we might enjoy. She has a weekly post card or letter from me as well and last week we used Messenger to have a video chat. I waited for her to initiate this, as she has little privacy at home and I wasn’t sure if she would be able to speak freely on the phone. We had a nice chat and talked about what we would do as soon as we could go out again. We also talked about this year’s pantomime, which she is keen to see. I have already booked the tickets, so she has something to look forward to and will feel reassured that we will see each other as soon as things are back to normal.

A bonus for me is that I’m finding I’m really enjoying our time together. As well as making a positive difference for my Younger Friend, the relationship is growing in a very satisfying way and we have lots of fun together. I look forward to our cooking sessions (and that little voice that asks “are we going to be messy?”) and hearing all about her news. It’s wonderful to watch her grow and learn and feel that I am an important part of that. I would highly recommend this project to anyone interested in children who would like to make a difference.

For more information on The Friendship Project, please visit: www.friendshipproject.co.uk, @FriendshipProj or call 0845 838 2098.