Derry woman's volunteering journey helped her get back on her feet
Kim Doherty has said her volunteer role with the NSPCC’s Young Witness Service allows her to to contribute to a ‘brighter, less fearful future’ for the children and families she supports through the court system.
The NSPCC Young Witness Service, is based in the north and is the only one of its kind in the UK. It assists children and young people under 18 years old who have to attend court as prosecution witnesses. It operates in Derry’s Bishop Street, Strabane, Coleraine and every other local crown, magistrates’ and youth court. Since the start of 2021 it has offered support to over 300 young witnesses.
Kim Doherty, aged 49, has been volunteering with the service since May 2021. The mother of four and grandmother of two explained what sparked her interest in volunteering. She said: “I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 12 years ago so sustaining a full time work career isn’t feasible at times. I also lost my partner of six years in 2019, and throughout lockdown I wanted to find something to help my confidence and find my feet again.
“Due to Covid, training took place via zoom but was backed up via booklets, videos and chats with other volunteers. The laws governing child protection were discussed and explained thoroughly. Training was a good mix of fun too as the topics can be quite difficult. The support received on an ongoing basis is second to none. Regular welfare checks and debriefings after cases are key to assisting us volunteers and every member of staff treats us with the upmost respect and care; our mental health as young witness supporters is paramount.
“The motivation for me is the fact that we act as a buffer to children and their families. We shield them from the harrowing scenes of encountering their perpetrators in court. We also liaise with the police and the prosecution service to allow children to steady themselves, breathe, stand tall and speak their truth, bravely and confidently and know they are being heard. The smiles of relief after are what makes it worthwhile to know they did it.
"Knowing the children and their families were supported with a friendly face makes all the difference. I was also surprised that not everything is black and white. Some families have been through the worst of experiences and still stand shoulder to shoulder.
“The tenacity of some of our kids is astonishing; despite the trauma they excel and are super ambitious for their future selves. They are phenomenal and also gracious for help negotiating the minefield of the legal system.”
Billy Eagleson, who is Volunteer Co-ordinator at the Service, said: “Going to court can be a very intimidating and frightening experience for anyone but even more so for young people as it’s such a strange and unfamiliar environment. The Young Witness Service was set up because we recognised this and we wanted to be able to support children and young people who needed to attend court to give evidence. Since we started in 1999, we have recruited and trained a truly amazing group of volunteers who work alongside paid staff to support these children and young people. Our volunteers come from all walks of life and are at many different stages of their career, but we need more of them – and urgently.
“The sort of support our volunteers can offer can be as straightforward as keeping a child company as there can be such a lot of waiting around during court cases. They can also chat to the children about the various court procedures and answer their questions. Sometimes, the young people we support are in court because something has been done to them by an adult who is a stranger or, often, by someone known to them. Sometimes, the relationship with the volunteer can be the first step to them rebuilding their confidence and trust in adults - the importance of this cannot be overestimated.
“We are currently calling on more people to volunteer so that we can continue to offer the service to every young person who needs it. It’s a really important role, providing such practical help to many children and their families.”
So, what advice does Kim have for people thinking of becoming a volunteer?
“Just do it," she said. “We all need support in some area of our lives at some point. You could be that one person who listened and supported and ignited that spark of hope - what a legacy in itself. You will have all the support, encouragement, and training behind you. Why not step forward to hold a child’s hand and fan that flame to a brighter, less fearful future?”
To become a volunteer, at least one year’s experience in a caring or supportive role is needed, as well as availability during normal court operating hours (9am to 5pm Monday to Friday) at least two days per month and must be able to commit to the role for at least one year after completion of training. For more information, visit https://join-us.nspcc.org.uk/volunteers/vacancy/young-witness-supporter--antrim---antrim-courthouse/6476/description/ or contact Billy Eagleson at [email protected] or on 07825948244.