BEING able to make a difference to the life of a child or young person can be an incredibly rewarding experience – but all the more so when dealing with youngsters who have grown up in the care system.

The Nepacs Independent Visitor service is a befriending scheme for children and young people between the ages of eight and 17 years old.

Provided by volunteers, the service is designed to offer each child in care the chance to build a trusted friendship with someone outside of their day-to-day life.

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Each volunteer meets up with the young person once a month, over a period of time, doing things they enjoy together, such as going for a bike ride, watching football or sharing a cuppa and chat.

For Donna, volunteering to befriend a young person in the care system has been very rewarding.

She said: “It started with an initiative our team have rolled out at Haines Watts called ‘Giving Back Days’. The idea being to give our time to a good cause, which is close to our hearts and personal values, rather than just fundraising.

“I researched opportunities and I came across the Nepacs Independent Visitor scheme appealing to people who could spend time with children and young people in the care system.

“The opportunity really spoke to me. I’m very aware of the positive impact that role models and people who can talk about different experiences can have on a young person. A big influence for me growing up was a particular primary school teacher, and I credit him partly in getting to where I am today.

“I have a teenage son and am familiar with some of the issues and challenges that teenagers face today. Most importantly I enjoy listening to others, hearing their stories and I’m always up for having fun.

“Getting in touch with Nepacs to get started was very straightforward. They were brilliant. I had an interview to understand what was involved in being an Independent Visitor, and there were the usual safeguarding checks to go through. It wasn’t a long process from when I first got in touch with them to when I found out I had been accepted and matched with a young person.”

Independent Visitors are matched with their child or young person, where possible, based on similar interests, and get a budget to spend on outings or activities of their choice.

Donna added: “Each time we meet I’m open to listening to what the young person would like to talk about. I never force a conversation and we talk about everything from things they are dealing with at school or generally, and we make a wish list of places we want to visit.

“We have been to Alnwick Castle, and the big thing we saved up for at Christmas was a trip on the Polar Express, which was really lovely for both of us with our matching onesies.

“I remember when they realised I was visiting as a volunteer, rather than in a paid capacity, they couldn’t believe it, and were really surprised and touched that I was giving up my time to be with them. It really strengthened the trust in our relationship.”

There are around 40 children and young people in care in the North East on the waiting list to get an independent visitor, and the charity desperately needs more support in order to meet demand.

Taylor, another independent visitor, said: “I was working as a co-ordinator for Nepacs and I took a big interest when I realised how many children and young people were waiting for a match.

“I joined up in November last year, when I was ready and able to make the commitment to the role. I’ve now had two visits with my young person, and it has been amazing.

"We get on so well – it is totally different to what I would usually do, and we do lots of different days out and activities together. I leave it up to them to decide our plans, but they wanted to build on their social skills so we try and do things to promote that and build confidence.”

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Angela Donaghy, from the Nepacs independent visitor service, said: “An Independent Visitor is an adult volunteer who provides support and friendship to a child or young person ‘looked after’ by the local authority. This involves establishing a long term supportive relationship where the young person will have the opportunity to develop their interests, learn new skills and build their self-esteem.

“For young people, a lot of them in the care of a local authority have often had turbulent lives with moves and changes in social workers. They can often be involved in a system with lots of people, but the independent volunteer role is not a paid member of staff, so it shows that person is there because they want to be.

“The idea is to give the child or young person a lovely experience each month, away from anything else that might be going on, and not involved with their carers or social workers. Often it is nice to help improve social skills, confidence, and access to activities they might not have tried before. We also try to match people up based on their interests, and hopefully they can build a safe, trusting relationship with an adult.

“The adults working with the young person can often see a real difference in them when they are part of the scheme, and it’s nice to be part of that development in them. The scheme also can benefit the volunteer, in so many different ways, as it is very fulfilling to help a child or young person in life.”

Sam, a young person living in care, has benefitted from their independent visitor over the last year.

They said: “It has been really good, we have a lot of things in common and I can go to her for advice or support. We both like reading books and going shopping.

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“I think a lot of children in care would benefit from having someone like her, it’s always a nice experience and something to look forward to.”

Nepacs is looking to recruit volunteers to support young people who are under local authority care in South Tyneside, Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland, Sunderland or County Durham, but also may be placed out of their local authority area.

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