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Formerly Community Northern Beaches

The Lucky Mentor by Stuart MacDonald

“I’d been lucky. I’d had three different volunteering roles at various times in the last 19 years or so, and each of them had turned out to be very special, giving me insights and experiences that I will remember as long as I live. Now I was ready to volunteer again. But looking for an entirely new and different sort of challenge. I had no set ideas on what that might be, but I knew I would recognize it when the right opportunity came along.

A contact in the social services sector suggested to me that it might be worth finding out about Community Northern Beaches’ ESL (English as a Second Language) Conversation Project for newly arrived Tibetan migrants. The project had apparently been such a great success that demand for the service was now outstripping supply, and CNB were looking for more volunteers to become ESL Mentors.

After attending an introductory workshop for prospective volunteers, followed by a relaxed interview, and then a few weeks’ wait while CNB’s Multicultural Services team carefully selected a student whom they felt would be a good match with me, I was finally introduced to my ‘student’, K – a really nice guy in his mid-forties – and we were up and running.

What does an ESL Mentor do? The most important thing of all is simply to give your student the opportunity to talk English. Through relaxed conversation with their mentors, students get to practice their English language skills and learn more about our Australian customs, manners, sport, culture, current affairs and so on. The mentor doesn’t have to be an ‘expert’ in any of these things, and you don’t even need to have previous ESL, mentoring or teaching experience. You just need to be a bit of a ‘people person’, a good listener and encourager, and someone who can explain in simple language what vegemite is and why people watch cricket!

One of the many wonderful things about this program, is that providing you meet in a public place, you are free to spend your weekly session with your student in whatever way works best for the two of you. Most students who enter this program have already gained a good grounding in English through studying at TAFE, and many will have previously spoken some English while in India, prior to coming to Australia. So the Project isn’t about teaching students English from scratch.

Your sessions with your student can be as formal or informal, as structured or as spontaneous, as you like. Should you need something to fall back on, as an alternative to informal conversation, CNB has plenty of helpful ESL resources available. Where and when you meet, and what you do, is entirely up to you and your student. It can be a walk along the beach, a shopping expedition to the Mall, a chat over coffee, or a quiet conversation in a corner of your local library. It’s up to you. There’s no pressure on you to achieve results or outcomes, beyond simply giving your student the opportunity to practice their conversational English for at least one hour a week.

I will soon have completed my first six months with CNB. The time has flown by. I feel so lucky to have found a volunteering role that is interesting, stretching and fulfilling, and to be working with such a lovely – and very supportive – team of people.

Best of all – and something not to be underestimated – is the satisfaction to be derived through working one-on-one with someone, and to see over time the beneficial effect of what you are doing. So many volunteering roles give you the opportunity to be involved with a worthy cause, but in a ‘behind the scenes’ capacity, so that you never get to see the end result of all your efforts. Here within CNB’s ESL Conversation Project, you’re ‘on the front line’, and I’ve found it really exhilarating to be able to see that I seem to be making a positive difference.

One of the things that all the volunteers in this program do agree on is that you just couldn’t imagine nicer people to be working with than our local Tibetans. It’s impossible to generalize, of course, but it’s probably fair to say that almost without exception they are warm and sincere people, appreciative and responsive (although usually in a more restrained way than we Westerners!), and they tend to have a cheerful, “glass half full” outlook and often a good sense of humour too! Attributes which are all the more remarkable, given the extraordinarily challenging and sometimes harrowing situations that many of them have come out of. The life stories they tell, once you have their trust, are often moving and inspiring, and make you realisehow lucky we all are to be living in a place as safe and wonderful as Australia.

And I’ve quickly found that the ‘mentoring’ is absolutely a two-way process. I’ve learned so much over the last five months. When I told a friend of mine, who is a Counsellor and Senior Clinician working in the Mental Health sector, all about our local Tibetan community, and about the experiences that some of its members had undergone prior to settling here in the safety and security of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, her reply was: “I can’t even fathom the resilience and strength of spirit that would take. It’s they who should be mentoring us. With the perspective and coping skills they have, there’s so much that they can teach us!”


She definitely has a point!’