Making a Difference – On the Road Again

On the road again

Whether by volunteering or branching out on our own,  we can all make a difference in our communities and to our own lives. Welcome to the third in a series of Grownups articles designed to help seniors do just this!

“On the Road Again” – meet a volunteer driving mentor helping former refugees

Grocery shopping, school drop-offs, everyday appointments, and a job to get to on time – it’s a hard enough act for the best of us to follow. Now, factor in a new country, a different language, and no driver’s licence. Welcome to the world of the former refugee.

Hamilton Multicultural Trust recognises this particular dilemma with their ‘Open Road driver training programme’, a 16 week course of driving instruction which matches former refugee learner drivers with volunteer Kiwi mentors. Like Jim Tompkins of Nelson, many mentors are seniors with a little spare time, and a desire to help others.

Jim first became a mentor 5 years ago, when he saw an advertisement in his local paper. At this stage, the programme was operating under the Red Cross Pathways to Employment scheme. A former teacher of yachting at the University of California, Jim had worked for Red Cross before as a water safety and boating instructor, so becoming a driving mentor seemed like a logical next step to take.Driving mentor Jim Tompkins

What followed his expression of interest in the job, was the usual police check, and a mentor course which also provided him with a teaching manual which, even today, he finds valuable to refer back to.

It’s the job of the Open Road co-ordinator to match mentors with students. Jim says while this is about teaming up individuals who are free at the same time, careful consideration is also given to the learning needs of the student and the experience of the mentor. Jim, who has a smattering of Spanish, often finds himself paired with Colombian students.

A second language, however, isn’t essential. This is because paid interpreters can be employed to sit in on the lessons, where it is important to get critical information across. For some learners, who have virtually no English, other measures can be put in place by the coordinator. This can mean matching experienced mentors, like Jim, with family members who can volunteer as interpreters.

Some learners have zero driving experience. In fact, some will never have sat in a driver’s seat before.

“It can be tough for them,” explains Jim. “I find that using humour, and quiet coaxing, can help.” But, overall, he says, it’s patience and a sense of calm, that are required.

Of course, for those new to driver mentoring, additional instructer support is provided to get them comfy with the set up and volunteering.

Some former refugee learner drivers will have been driving for years, and may hold a foreign licence. But driving expectations in their country of origin are unlikely to be as exacting as they are in New Zealand. As with a beginner driver, there is a lot they must learn before the coveted Kiwi licence is theirs.

Jim estimates as many as half of former refugees who take their drivers’ licence will fail the first time round (a similar proportion to non former refugees). Having said that, most of his own learners pass first time round – but Jim has been a teacher before, and is very experienced as a mentor.

Open Road driving mentors are provided with a car in which to take lessons, with the instructor’s footwell equipped with an override brake pedal. Other than that, lessons progress much as they would have with any learner. A parking lot and some road cones come in handy for the first lessons, which then progress to quieter roads, followed by roundabouts. Between teaching, driving mentors meet regularly at the Red Cross Center to share experiences and teaching tips.

Jim has no hesitation in recommending the volunteer driver mentoring to others. “I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from teaching a skill that’s so beneficial,” he says. “Life gets so much easier for someone when they have a driver’s licence. I also find I’m a better driver now, than I was. When you have to teach something, you remember it!”

If you have patience, commitment to punctuality, your drivers’ licence, and a desire to help others, enquire now about the Open Road driver training programme. If you are a former refugee wanting to take part in the programme, contact your local language or settlement provider.