Helping hands

Jenni ParkerJenni Parker tells DDN about the Aurora Project Lambeth, a social enterprise that offers volunteer-led peer mentoring to people in treatment. 

The Aurora Project Lambeth is situated in a quiet office on Stockwell Road in Brixton, south London and was set up three years ago by a group of service users from Lambeth. The project is an independent, not-for-profit social enterprise that is governed by a board made up of service users, local residents and professionals.

The idea behind the project was to offer peer support and mentoring to individuals in treatment for their substance use within the borough, and to promote the belief that those in recovery have much to offer their local communities. It aimed to challenge the stereotype that drug and alcohol users are a burden on society.

The board was successful in securing £110,000 worth of funding from the local primary care trust and the project continues to be funded by the Lambeth local authority. Two years ago I joined the organisation as their only paid member of staff. My challenge? To streamline the project’s operations.

I worked closely with the directors and three service users, who gave their time to the project on a voluntary basis, to recruit volunteers who had been through treatment themselves and were in recovery. We then trained them to be peer mentors and matched them to clients referred to us by the Lambeth Alcohol and Drug Treatment Consortium.

The biggest challenge at this stage was finding volunteers to give their time, but two years on we have a team of 30 trained volunteer peer mentors. One Aurora Project Lambeth volunteer, who joined us six months into his own recovery, said of his experience, ‘My time at Aurora Project Lambeth has been one of the most positive, inspiring and fulfilling times of my life.’

My role involves the ongoing support and management of our volunteer team – ensuring they get a good volunteering experience during their time with the project and ensuring that they provide a great standard of support to others.

Our volunteers offer clients the chance to speak to someone who has ‘been there and done that’. They give practical advice and information on a variety of topics, as well as motivational support and encouragement, whether through attending groups, appointments or meetings. Our volunteers offer clients their time, which is something that they seem to value the most – time to work things out, to talk, to be heard.

‘It’s not clinical,’ said one client of her interaction with an Aurora Project volunteer. ‘I know she understands and she’s been through the same thing.’

In addition to ongoing one-to-one peer mentoring, we also offer clients the chance to come along to our art group, which is facilitated by a trained artist who is in recovery herself. This group allows them to meet and support each other, as well as adding structure to their day-to-day lives. It helps to raise self-esteem – and is also a way of just having fun!

Last year we achieved the approved provider standard, a national quality standard awarded by the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation. This standard was awarded to us because we proved we offer an outstanding experience for our volunteers, supporting them in their roles and in helping them to access further education. It also recognises that our volunteers are trained thoroughly for their role, that the organisation is governed exceptionally well and that we are offering a much needed and effective service for our clients.

There have of course been teething problems along the way. We have learned that although we are an independent organisation, it is vital to have the buy-in and support from the Lambeth Treatment Consortium, ensuring communication channels are always open. We have also learned that offering a high level of support to our volunteers is paramount when asking people in recovery to work directly with clients, many of whom are still living chaotic lifestyles. We do this by offering them clinical supervision, support from staff and ensuring that the volunteers support each other.

The Aurora Project Lambeth continues to grow and has become embedded in the local community.

Jenni Parker is the service delivery manager at Aurora Project Lambeth. www.auroraprojectlambeth.org.uk

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