Interview with Leon Aston – Boys 2 Men Mentor (www.fatherfigures.org)
After seeing an email at work asking for volunteers to help mentor local disadvantaged teenage boys, Leon Aston jumped at the chance, having coming from a big family, and having always contemplated working with children. Since having 2 children of his own, he realised working with these boys would enhance his own personal development both for his own children and the boys at the Forge School.
Leon recalls how his own grandad, who had 7 children, was a legend in the family, a great story teller. At age 20 he came over to the U.K. from Jamaica, and brought up his family on the ethos of, ‘hard work, and never stop believing in what you can do.’ Leon fondly tells us, ‘He was 83 yesterday and is still busy working with the carpentry around the church. Whatever you do in life, you work hard, and then you go home and look after your family.’
Leon’s own driving force is making a difference with the kids, gaining their trust, showing them there’s another way to go down. ‘If you work hard, you can achieve anything… if I’m working hard at personally developing them, they’ll find what they’re good at, I’ll find what they’re good at and help them. If they focus on that instead of being disruptive… I enjoyed school, my friends and the environment.’ ‘what I wish I knew then, that I know now, and that I hope I’m passing onto these lads, is just give something a go. If I work hard at something, I can achieve anything.’
Perhaps one of the driving forces behind both wanting to help and being able to help, is being able to draw on personal experiences in his own life. ‘When I was 16, my own father figure left. From that moment, I had this anger inside me that I couldn’t get out… I started acting like an idiot, getting in trouble and that. It was because I didn’t know how to get this off my chest… Years later, we had a moment in our Boys 2 Men training where we were sharing experiences from our own lives, and at that moment I decided to get it off my chest. And ever since then, the anger I had, has gone. At 16, 17, 18 I was a bit reckless, but I came through it. Having my own kids has helped too. It will make me an even stronger Dad.’
Leon’s ability to make good of his experience with having lost a father figure is what drew Phil to Leon during his interview: ‘this is very much the heart of the programme. Nurturing lads by empowering Dads. Leon’s experience hits right at the heart of what we do.’
And Leon couldn’t agree more: ‘I turned it into a positive. I just want to help these kids. My kids won’t have this life.’ Even though his own children are only 4 and 9 months, Leon is already putting things into place that perhaps he wouldn’t have done a year ago. ‘I can already see little traits that I’m going to nip in the bud. Working with the lads makes me calmer.’
All the mentors work together during their fortnightly mentor sessions, but certain lads gravitate to mentors according to their own interests.
Leon’s own talents have helped him forge his own connections with a couple of the boys, with his interest in music production having resonated with them. ‘with the music, they can put down what they feel… one lad, I could tell he wanted to learn something, but didn’t know what. So I showed him a beat, and then he wanted to know what we could next. I said we could add some words or poetry to it. Then he sat down for a good 2-3 hours just writing music. I told him to put his main rhyming word in the middle of the page… the word he chose was ‘mad’. All the other words were quite angry. Then he started talking about his parents and his life, just from what he was writing down. A conversation is harder. But all his raw emotion was coming out on the paper… then we recorded it. For him to find the confidence to do it, he was just so chuffed with himself. Also, they normally find it hard to share what they’ve done with the rest of the group. But I said how chuffed I was, and would he share it with the rest of the group. He played it to the group, and he had this glow about him. Then after he was asking “when are we working on the next one?”
Phil emphasised what a massive breakthrough this was for Leon and the charity: for this young lad to talk about his feelings, make something, share it AND be proud of it! Leon: ‘We’ve got the breakthrough. Every day with this lad will be productive now.’
When I asked them to share their most memorable day so far, Phil and Leon instantly grinned, and just said ‘Swimming!’ 6 months into the mentoring programme: they went for a swimming day at Droitwich Lido, the last day of term. ‘It was great throwing each other in the pool, messing around, laughing together. It was good to see them with no stress, just being teenagers.’ Phil: ‘these kids, who have so much baggage, somehow we’d built a relationship, the mentors had built a relationship to such an extent that on this day so they were able to be themselves, and just act like 14/15 year olds.’ But the nature of the people within the project, means it’s not always fun and games; one of the boys had a lot of stuff going on this day, and unfortunately didn’t join in. but even on this occasion, Leon’s able to see the progression with the group; ‘normally, when one goes, they all have a go. The lads tried to get him to join in, but he just didn’t want to. But all the other lads stayed, and it was wicked.’
It’s very scary with what might happen to boys like these once they leave mainstream education, and who knows politically what the future holds to help them through social service care. But instead Phil is thrilled at what has been achieved in the mentoring programme. ‘They’ve had a valued-added input that they wouldn’t have had without the Gems Mentors… it’s sown a seed. They’ve had an experience of something good and wholesome, where they’ve been valued. And that stays with you.’
The main hope is that they now get drawn to people like the Mentors, people who can add values to their own lives, having seen what they can achieve through people like our Mentors.
The Forge School are using their work with the charity as part of their submission to Ofsted, showing that they are doing their very best. The activities the mentors engage in is funded by the school with Boys2Men being the facilitator and the link between the school and Gems. The support from the Colourful Life Foundation has enabled Boys2Men to become established as a charity and as part of their work, offer opportunities such as this to young people who are not able to cope in mainstream schools. If the mentors are willing, a new group of lads in year 10 will be introduced to the mentors, taking them through to the end of their time at the Forge School.
It was when I was asking about the different activities that the boys all do together, that another strand to the whole project became clear. So far they’ve taken part in watersports, camping, swimming, climbing, mountain biking. Lots of high energy sports, because risk and adventure is part of the heart of boys – but a father figure as role model during these activities is key here. Learning how to handle situations together – nurturing lads by empowering lads. Back to nature can help this nurturing, spending time outside, having real adventures together, getting hearts pumping and minds racing through the thrill of risk-taking, not trouble-making.
Words – Sian Smith