Empowered, employable, empathetic: changing lives and the community through mentoring
On an estate built to house those displaced from Belfast during the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Kilcooley Women’s Centre is striving to build a resilient, supportive community through mentoring.
The centre's Erasmus+ project, Innovative Quality Mentoring for Social Inclusion, aimed to teach people how to be effective mentors able to support those most at risk of exclusion in their local communities.
Many of those that took part in the project started their own journeys into mentoring from a socially isolated situation.
“Kilcooley Women’s Centre started as a support network for mums who needed help with basic skills,” explained Lynne Bloomfield, Head of Business Services and Corporate Development at Kilcooley Women’s Centre.
“We have now grown to become an education centre working with unemployed and economically inactive people to help improve their employment prospects through one-to-one mentoring, peer support and skills-based training.
“Through our work, we realised there was a real need for mentors to support people in the local area and this was the inspiration for our community mentoring project.”
The aim of the project was to train two trainers from each participating country in community mentoring and for them to then cascade this learning in their area and wider country.
“We started the project by establishing what it meant to be a community mentor in the different European countries involved in the project," said Lynne. "From there, we developed a training plan and a series of modules. Having tested the modules on our participants, we were then able to put together a best practice guide and manual.”
Donna McIlroy, a participant in the project from Belfast, started her own journey back into employment through community education after raising her family. Inspired by a mentor, she trained to become a counsellor and took part in the Erasmus+ mentoring project.
“My highlight was the learning experience in Turkey, which not only gave me the opportunity to visit a region I wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to visit, but I have formed lifelong friendships with other participants who continue to engage and share experiences. Erasmus+ was truly life-changing experience,” she said.
Donna now works with survivors of sexual abuse and violence.
“After taking part in this project, I am now able to provide a mentoring approach to clients when they complete their counselling. I’ve also recruited participants from my work to complete the training when they conclude their own counselling.”
Gina Murray is a senior service user of Kilcooley Women‘s Centre, great-grandma and a resident of the estate. During the Northern Ireland conflict, Gina lost her 13-year-old daughter Leanne in the Shankhill Road bombing in 1993. The loss of her daughter had a huge impact on her mental health. She was unable to work and struggled with daily life.
Then Gina was introduced to Kilcooley Women‘s Centre and mentoring.
"Having a mentor has changed my life, and when I had the opportunity via the Erasmus+ project to train to become a mentor myself, I was very keen to become involved,” Gina said.
Her Erasmus+ experience has inspired Gina to continue her learning journey and she has now completed Level 1 in Mentoring.
The establishment of the Kilcooley Scouts is a major achievement for Gina and will leave a lasting legacy on the estate for the Erasmus+ project
Gina now works with different groups within the community, including older vulnerable people who are suffering social isolation, providing mentoring to help improve their confidence, self-esteem and ability to engage in community activities, using her own personal journey as an example.
Using the skills developed through the Erasmus+ project, Gina also established a Scout group on the Kilcooley estate, targeting children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“With the skills and confidence I gained, I have now cascaded the learning to my team of volunteers, who I am mentoring, to ensure they become first class Scout Leaders,” Gina said.
“The establishment of the Kilcooley Scouts is a major achievement for Gina and will leave a lasting legacy on the estate for the Erasmus+ project,” Lynne added.
The ripple effect of mentoring in this project is clear, with many of those being mentored through difficult situations going on to support others.
Roberta Gray began as a volunteer and has gone on to become the Education Manager at Kilcooley Women’s Centre.
"My best experience would be delivering the mentoring to a group of eight women who had just finished counselling for rape and sexual abuse," she said.
“Out of that group, at least four of them are going on to mentor other people – people who are ready to engage with the organisation but not ready to take part in the counselling process. So they will mentor these women right through their journey to enable them to improve their lives.”
Personal and professional gains
As well as having a personal impact on the project participants and leaving a lasting legacy in the community, the project also benefitted Kilcooley Women’s Centre.
Head of International Projects and Impact, Emma Mooney, said: “Our organisation has benefited from Erasmus+ because we now have people with more experience in mentoring and those who have taken part have so much more confidence in themselves.
“Erasmus+ has been a great opportunity to learn from and share with other countries. Each country has different situations but similar issues - being able to participate in an Erasmus+ project has also helped us to identify other issues we could focus on in the future.”
“From a personal and professional point of view, it’s been a massive journey for us to be able to be part of Erasmus+.
“It has opened up our networks – we have been able to form good working relationships with a wide variety of European organisations allowing us to share best practice amongst communities - and that helps you develop your own communication skills.”
“The most rewarding part for us is to see someone who thinks they’ll never achieve anything go on to find a passion, go in to full-time employment or start something new in their local community, and this project has helped us achieve this,” concluded Lynne.
The Innovative Quality Mentoring for Social Inclusion project has had a clear impact on both its participants and the organisation, while the impact on the community continues to grow. Kilcooley Women’s Centre has been able to empower those who were personally at risk of social exclusion and give them the skills and training to support others in their communities facing similar situations.
Want to read more inspiring stories from our adult education projects? Visit our dedicated webpage!