Merredith is quite astute in matching mentee and mentor. I’m comparing this to other mentor processes I’ve been involved in. I’ve done other mentor training but I found their process of matching a bit more ad hoc. Merredith is very structured which I think is a big secret to the success of the program.
I have a trainer background so I could see that because Merredith is involved in the training she is observing what people are like. She has the insight from the mentees, their personalities and what their needs are likely to be. Having that insight into each person gives her the ability to match the right people together.
In terms of my experience in the training itself, I thought it was run really professionally, engaging and high energy. As a trainer, I have fairly high standards – a bit like a doctor going to the doctor. The training was of high standard and well structured. Content-wise, it was very appropriate and the whole thing ran really well. Having the training at [corporate partner] Clayton Utz added to the professionalism Clayton Utz too.
My experience with Fitted for Work is not typical. I have been a mentor to the same client for about two years. Lucy* and I met then three months later she was returned to prison for breach of parole. This was personally shattering for me, as well as her, as she should not have been returned. At that point, Merredith explained to me that to continue mentoring her was above and beyond what was expected from Fitted for Work and that I could choose what I wanted to do.
By that stage, Lucy had been making some really good progress – she was doing a part-time course, and had some part-time work and going great guns. Merredith and I had more conversations around what my commitment could be and how I wanted to proceed. It was really left in my court. I made the choice to stick by Lucy and for the next eight months I went to the prison every week. Including travel, the weekly commitment was in excess of 4 hours. I’d leave home really early and get home early afternoon, feeling emotionally drained. In eight months, I only missed two weeks.
Lucy was released mid-the following year. She had another year of parole to get through, which I supported her. Though we are not formally on the mentor program, we are still in contact. So there were three stages of our relationship: pre-prison, prison-time, post prison.
I have an HR background and I had assumed mentoring would be quite operational and functional. I was thinking I could help her by providing her with some structure in getting work from an HR perspective. Such as where she might want to be employment-wise, helping her prepare her resume, interview preparation and so on. The one thing I hadn’t factored in was the emotional connection you can make. Working with her took me to another level which surprised me. A lot.
Because of the complexities of Lucy’s situation and Merredith’s background in the prison system, Merredith was a great support to me. So deciding to help Lucy through the next few months was a no brainer. I saw potential in this woman and could see that her readiness and potential to make a change was huge.
Lucy had to make significant changes and I could see her commitment. In fact, my experience with her highlighted to me what’s important in life and was life-changing for me. It felt more personal than I’ve had working in a typical corporate environment. The main difference was helping her with the process of discovering herself.
I approached the process of self-discovery with the mantra of “Seek first to understand. And hold your judgment”. Initially I didn’t know what crime she committed and I didn’t need to. That surprised me at a personal level, as usually I would want to know but in this case it wasn’t important. I just let it unfold and eventually I learnt more about her story.
The strength of Fitted for Work’s mentor program is that you don’t need to know anything about your mentee’s story. Your role is to provide them with a fresh outlook on life and help them move forward. Everyone has a story and a history and jumping to conclusions or judgment is just not appropriate.
The other thing that came out for me in the training is that these women are not disadvantaged women, they are simply currently disadvantaged. That shifted my way of looking at things. They are not much different to you or I. If we were all in a room together, you would not be able to pick which woman was or was not experiencing disadvantage. Those messages in the training were very important.
Another thing that helped strengthen our relationship, was Lucy and I were really honest with each other in first early days and agreed to let the other know if the relationship wasn’t working out. This was something new for her in her life. We quickly found a mutual trust of each other.
The first couple of times I left her in the prison, we just cried and cried. It didn’t feel right. So it was great to be able to debrief with Merredith. Lucy and I responded well to each other. For example, the first time we met, I arrived with a notebook and pen. The following week, she did the same. It may not sound like a big deal but it was a little bit of modelling that she willingly picked up on. Ultimately, she knew I would do what I said I would do, and I knew she would do what she said she would do.
Lucy has told me that her weekly visits with me and having someone believe in her really got her through her prison stay. It really made a significant difference to her. I just believed I was the right person to help her through it.
During Lucy’s prison’s stay, I found myself choosing to do alot advocacy work for her outside of the visits. I spoke to lawyers, the parole board, politicians, a whole range of people, trying to rectify the injustice of her being put back in. I just felt I needed to take some action on her behalf.
Because of the time we spent together, we talk about lots of things that maybe we wouldn’t done over the course of a usual mentor-mentee relationship. We got to know each other on a much more personal level and she told me a lot about herself and her history. We still spoke about employment and making plans for her parole but we probably got a lot closer than I would have expected had she not been inside.
I grew to be quite worried for her. I could tell at the beginning of each visit when she was having a tough week. I learnt a lot about the prison system and other people’s behaviour. At one point another prisoner took a dislike to her and I was actually quite fearful for Lucy’s personal safety. Fortunately, nothing came of that.
A lot of Lucy’s issues came from body image. Over the years, she has looked at where these have come from. The first time she came out of prison she was about 130kg. Then she lost 30kg, when she went back in she lost another 20kg – which is unreal considering the diet inside. The gym became her friend. She and I talked a lot about body image and I encouraged her to use the mantra, “I am healthy and beautiful.” She then passed this on to other women in the prison. She ended up using the content we talked about to mentor others. So you see, Fitted for Work infiltrated the prison as well!
Every week, we set ourselves action items. We would feed off each other. If she had not been committed and willing to improve her situation I don’t know that I would have been as committed to her. She was aiming to be a good role model to her son and she knew she needed to get employment and independence. She had a long way to go but she was on her way.
Then she came out of prison. I caught up with her the day after. It felt bizarre for me to be seeing her on the outside. That was a tough time for her, trying to re-engage relationships and establish trust with her family. She was absolutely terrified that she might be put back in again and that her son would be taken away from her – as had been threatened. She really endured a whole range of tough stuff.
She struggled in herself with depression for a while. She couldn’t see possibilities or what she could do. So I dug even deeper to help her through, to remind her what she had done and had achieved. All those things that it’s hard to remember when you’re feeling so down on yourself. After six months, she got employment and things picked up. She had money, a purpose and independence.
She really started to shine. Her employer has seen the potential in her and she was moved into another position with higher duties. She’s an intelligent woman who still has her challenges but she’s doing well. She’s in the driver’s seat of her life for the first time in her life. Now that she’s been working for over a year, my role as her mentor is officially over.
The whole experience has been totally enlightening. What I knew about prison systems you could have written on the back of a matchbox. Even my judgement of criminals has changed. I have changed my perspective a whole lot. It wouldn’t have changed if I hadn’t met Lucy and followed her through this journey that she went through. It’s broadened my horizons no end. And the support from Merredith was invaluable. She would give me tips that I could try with Lucy which really helped.
Now Lucy and I friends. We’ve talked about the fact that we’ll always have a connection even though we don’t see each other very often. The only time I put on the mentoring hat is when she feels down on herself. I will encourage her and remind her of where she’s been and what she’s done.
I feel very humbled by the process and privileged to have been able to have walked the journey with her. I see that mentoring is a really nice process whereby I can walk with the person by their side. For me, the power of the Fitted for Work mentoring program is that if you can walk that journey with another woman and to just be there. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything particularly special. I guess my perspective is that it was a two-way relationship: we both had something that the other person needed at that point in time.
Being able to help a stranger was really powerful. For me, to believe in another person and to let them know that is both powerful and special. I believe in return she had sense of belonging and connectedness.
*Client name changed for privacy reasons.