The vulnerability of those we work with – and the tragedy when things go wrong

Helen Walker

I often write about the power of volunteering, the impact it can have and the difference people can make to one another’s lives. I don’t often write about the downside, the vulnerability of those we work with and the tragedy when something goes wrong.  

A few weeks ago I took a call from one of our co-ordinators first thing one morning.  She explained simply that one of the mentees on her project had died and she needed to tell his volunteer mentor. She wanted to make sure she was doing the right thing because of course we have a process for all eventualities – there has to be when you are dealing with the most vulnerable people in our society.

What had happened was that the mentor had called in to say he couldn’t contact his mentee and was worried about him. She then called his emergency contact – in this case the sheltered accommodation where he lived – and discovered that he had passed away that weekend.  We talked through how best to tell his mentor and decided it had to be face to face so a meeting was arranged that evening.

When you take on a volunteering opportunity it’s for lots of reasons but for a mentoring project it’s because you want to help people turn their life around, make a difference and empower them to move forward. The reality of working with vulnerable people is that they may have a range of issues including dependence on alcohol and drugs, homelessness and mental health issues that can affect their ability to take control of their lives.

I checked in with the co-ordinator the next day. She said our mentor had been shocked and upset; she comforted him and he left her as positively as he could given the circumstances. She said: “I’ll call him later and we’ll both go to the funeral together. It’s so sad because after everything the mentee had been through he was starting out on a positive pathway and he really enjoyed his mentoring.”

We are a small organisation and are all affected by good and bad news – this reminded us that we are working with those least able to help themselves. Mentoring can be transformational for individual lives and at our darkest moments as we think of this very special mentoring pair we must hold onto that.

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