Our Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention has been running school mentoring programmes for a few years. The results are very encouraging and rewarding, we have seen how the students are transformed and enhanced after receiving support from their mentors.
The programmes not only help to broaden their horizons and expose them to their mentors' experiences, they also strengthen their self-esteem.
We have seen improvements in their performance at school and in the relationships they have with their parents. We are encouraged by the responses from the schools and parents on the changes in these young people. Furthermore, the mentors have also gained from the experience in reaching out to those who are in need. The mentors are alumni, students and staff of our university, members of the Lions Club, and Marco Polo Hotel employees. They go through six weeks of training in mentoring and problem-solving skills, which provide the materials for the mentoring programme and teach them how to help young people solve day-to-day problems. All mentors must commit to working with these young people for nine months. Both students and mentors have found the materials useful and relevant. The mentoring programme is not only a relationship-building exercise, it also gives youngsters very practical problem-solving skills so they can build up resilience in facing adversity.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit two of the schools using this programme. One is a primary school in Tin Shui Wai and the other a secondary school in Sham Shui Po. I was impressed and moved by their sharing, and the commitment of the mentors was outstanding. They get no financial reward; they simply have to have a generous heart. The mentors' support is very tangible and they provide something which is not usually available to the students, for example, a social network, additional activities and support. The schools are very supportive in facilitating the programme and do some screening so the students who have a larger need get priority to join the programme.
The school principals and teachers appreciate the additional support from the mentors. As most teachers have a very heavy workload, the programme can give them some relief and ensure that students who need more help can get the support which otherwise might not be available.
With diminishing family support for these children, because their parents work long hours or because they are from a single parent family, there are many who do need a little extra attention. It is also important for parents to trust the mentors to be a good example to their children.
My colleagues provide the training for and monitoring of the programme and make sure it stays on the right course. It requires lots of attention and professionalism to provide this support and sometimes the mentors also need encouragement along the way.
As there are quite a few in our community who need help, simply relying on the government to do everything is not realistic. Not only is it impractical, it requires a lot of money. Despite the government's commitment to keep increasing the welfare budget, we somehow have to think differently, and the community has plenty to offer.
Actually, the Labour and Welfare Bureau's Community Investment and Inclusion Fund's efforts in building community networks have been paying good dividends in Tin Shui Wai and other districts.
We see how the school and housing estates are being improved with support from the community, civic-spirited individuals and corporations. We have worked with many wonderful people and organisations - such as Disneyland, Lions Clubs and our university's Azalea fund - who have responded positively and translated good thinking into reality. The mentoring programme is a shining example of a successful collaboration which can achieve a lot with just a little. We are grateful to have so many dedicated mentors who are serving the community; they are "hidden heroes".
I hope our community can find more people like them and launch many more similarly worthwhile projects so we can build a truly caring, compassionate and cohesive Hong Kong. By helping these young people we enable our community to develop and nurture our next generation, which is crucial if we are to achieve a better Hong Kong in the future.
Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention and professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong