Sara is my mentor during my volunteering journey. But more importantly, she is a big inspiration to me! She used to be an ESC (EVS) volunteer and then decided to continue her career in the Social Work field.
If you read my previous posts, you already know that I want to pursue a career in this field too.
But… What career path do you want to pursue? Any subfield of Social Work? Is ESC something more than a gap year for you? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.
Sara answered my questions genuinely. Even when I was transcribing it, I re-enjoyed the things we talked about. Hopefully, it will give a deeper understanding of what our mentors doing to support us, volunteers.
Berna: Hello Sara, thanks for agreeing to do an interview, I appreciate it. Can you talk about your journey a bit? How did you become interested in this field?
I have been living in Northern Ireland for 6 years with a break of one year. I came to NI as a volunteer, back then it was called EVS (now ESC) I was 30 then so I just got in on time. I thought to myself, I should do something abroad, I always wanted to go to Ireland since I was a teenager, I eventually made it. (She laughs) I came to NI and I volunteered in an organization that works with homeless people. After that, I decided to stay in NI. Then I did different jobs including support worker. I have taken a qualification as a youth worker. I worked with young people in Refugee and asylum seekers community. They gave me theoretical knowledge and experience working with young people. And the fact that I was an EVS volunteer helped me to see things from the volunteers’ perspective. Living with other volunteers, missing my family and friends, managing the house.
Berna: You said other volunteers, was it like Causeway house in variety?
Sara: Yes, we were four people from different countries. The dynamics were a bit different, but the concept was quite similar. Sharing a house, solving problems, household, and budget…
Berna: It feels like you’ve been doing this for long years though.
Sara: Maybe there is consistency between what I’m doing now as a mentor and what I was doing in the past.
Berna: What are your responsibilities as a mentor?
My main task is to make sure volunteers are okay. It is about well-being of volunteers. I am making sure that volunteers are having an experience that is pleasant, which complies with their own expectations. Even supporting volunteers for their next steps, making changes, making improvements or even challenge their boundaries if they want to. On one hand: things are running smoothly, and everyone is happy with their lives professionally and socially.
Berna: This reminded me of the time when you did the foundation course about mental health with a volunteer. A challenge or a quest like that?
Sara: If they want to experience something they have never done before, they might be a bit shy, so it is about empowering them. Trying something new can be scary sometimes. But this is a safe space for everyone so it is ideal to try them out! Even if the result is not perfect, you will learn a lot out of your mistakes, it is an experience to share with a right approach. For the mental health cineclub, you saw that the volunteer managed it well, so it could be you who is delivering such foundation course next time. You can share your knowledge and experience with the other volunteers as it’s a perk of being a part of the community. It is not about productivity but more about self-awareness. What am I ready for? What am I willing to try? What we do is saying: “look, these are the options, what would you pick up among them?” It is more about showing them the options rather than telling them what to do.
Berna: Encouraging them with their inner journeys.
Sara: Yes, it starts from them. If I sense that there is room for trying something new, then I would encourage them to do so. Otherwise, it would be putting them under pressure as if I told them they should be doing more for the sake of doing more. Everyone has their reasons to be here, so it’s meant to match the individual with the community.
Berna: How is a typical day at Glencraig for you?
The beauty of this job, or the jobs in the social sector -what I’m going to say is banal but it’s true- is ‘interaction’. You never know what to expect. You are always on the boat, ready to react in the most appropriate way. Also, you need to be able to prioritise events. If something unexpected comes up, you need to reschedule your day. A lot of space is given to the informal relationships so even a cup of coffee, a chat: these are the moments that the biggest work is done. An important part of my work is related to paperwork, the induction regarding Causeway, Glencraig. Apart from paperwork and ticking the boxes, explaining the rules, fire alarm, there is building a relationship of trust. Getting to know the volunteer and them getting to know about you and it is quite natural. You don’t plan it; you just go with the flow.
Berna: It wouldn’t work if you said, ‘alright guys let’s socialise in the kitchen yaay’ At least not for me.
Sara: It would be odd. If someone did that to me, I would be a bit suspicious. But what we do in Causeway is a genuine thing, relating with volunteers. I have learned a lot working here. I love this job for that. That’s how I get the energy for the job.
Berna: What do you like the most about your job particularly?
Sara: As I said before, to push my own boundaries, giving everyone the possibility to learn something new about themselves is something that applies to me too. Back to the foundation course we delivered I was also challenging my own boundaries, because delivering a group session is not something I would do every day. So that was an occasion for me to push my boundaries and learn. It is a learning process. Basically, what I like about this job is the opportunity to learn. It’s a learning in progress, if you don’t patronise people and try to get as much as you can, not in a selfish way. It’s a give and take thing. I’m supposed to support and help people, but I think I have received more than I gave to the people.
Berna: Do you feel like you become friends with the volunteers?
Sara: There must be boundaries. I am happy to share about my life as well, but it is important to be aware of boundaries. Sometimes sharing frustration, or even disclosing things about a volunteer with another volunteer, it’s a delicate balance. On one hand, it’s very informal and spontaneous conversation, on the other hand, you need keep an eye on the fact that you are not among the group of friends. It would be unfair if I was in that group of friends and I was talking about another friend who is not there, it’s just not fair. At that point it gets unprofessional. We always need to be mindful of who we are talking about and who we are talking to as common sense. I am a mentor, and I don’t see myself on the top of the hierarchy, above the volunteers. I consider myself a colleague of volunteers.
Berna: That sounds so fulfilling.
Sara: The violin is playing in the background. (She laughs) I was working in Italy, supporting somebody with special needs, and now I see that they taught me more than I taught them. It teaches you a lot about self-awareness, where you are standing, why you are reacting in a certain way, what can be done next… It is like a constant conversation between yourself and with others. Communication is the key. It can be tiring sometimes; you cannot just switch off your brain and let go. Not for me, not right now: I am talking about people in the social sector. Then we go back to keeping the boundaries again. You need to set the boundaries so that you can keep helping them.
Berna: What kind of decisions do you make? How do you get involved with the decision-making process?
Sara: My decision-making is mostly related to my day at work: prioritizing. If something urgent happens, that’s my decision to prioritise it. I will do it; the other tasks can wait. Or discussing them with the other mentors. Or it’s above me or deserves somebody else’s attention I will pass it on.
Berna: What abilities are essential in your field to be effective?
Sara: The focus of this field is the relationship we build with people. I think it’s a parameter to measure. If I receive positive feedback then it means I’m on the right path, I’m doing something good. Whenever you sense that you improve, or you have a positive impact in somebody’s life that’s a success. Empathy comes first, being non-judgmental not assuming your point of view is the right one. You need to support that person even though you necessarily don’t agree with that person and then I think especially working with young people: we are not there to advise; we are not there because you are the wise one with the life experience. You are there to help them make their own choices. It’s a thin line and it’s the core principle of youth work. It’s quite similar to what I’m doing here and what I’m qualified for. If you want to work in the social sector you need to have a natural attitude of being open-minded otherwise you will make more damage than helping. But on the other hand, some abilities can be learned or improved with experience or with theory. Be open-minded, be open to learn, and see this as a learning opportunity. Curiosity to work.
Berna: That’s the word I thought of ‘curiosity’ you need to be curious about other people, how they feel, what they think, what’s happening in their lives. You see people maybe in the hardest periods in their lives; they are vulnerable.
Sara: That’s exactly where you shouldn’t give up to the temptation of giving your solutions. You see somebody struggling with a problem. Unless the person is clearly asking you for help you shouldn’t say what to do. It’s important to give options, and they can pick what they want if they wish. It’s not me telling the right and wrong and teaching life. It’s about learning together according to each individual.