Find out how you can support the wonderful work of Mermaids this Trans Awareness Week and beyond
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS
Mermaids have been supporting trans and gender-diverse children, young people, and their families as far back as 1995. The team started as a small group of concerned parents sat around the kitchen table, sharing experiences and finding answers that would help keep their children safe and happy.
Today, Mermaids has evolved into one of the UK’s leading LGBTQI charities, empowering thousands of people with its secure online communities, local community groups, helpline services, web resources and events.
The helpline offers emotional support, a gateway to the parents and teens forums, information about current legislation and protections under the law, plus signposting to training and resources. It’s available to anyone struggling with their gender identity up until the age of 20, and it’s open Monday to Friday, 9am to 9pm.
We spoke to Helpline Service Manager, Krystyna Hebb, all about what Mermaids will need going forward so they can continue supporting trans and gender-diverse children in the UK.
How long have you been working for Mermaids?
I took up the role of Helpline Service Manager with Mermaids just over four years ago. As a queer woman who has actively advocated for LGBTQI rights for well over half my life, I was already very aware of the struggle that gender diverse people face, but I don’t think I realised how much life impacted children and young people. My partner of 20 years transitioned later in life after hiding his true feelings from the world for over 40 years and we first heard of Mermaids in 2015 when we heard Susie Green (CEO) talk about the charity and its work at an event. As she spoke it suddenly became so clear for both of us that children, young people and their families were still facing stigma, criticism and discrimination within a modern day society. We look back now and wonder how we had never heard of this vital charity before.
I soon took up my role as the first ever Helpline Service Manager and since that first day in September 2016, I have seen the charity grow hugely in such a relatively short time and am honoured every day to be part of that growth.
How has Covid-19 affected the work that you do?
Due to Covid-19 this year has been particularly busy as we have seen a rise in contacts, with the number up to the end of October exceeding that for the whole of 2019/20. Still having five months left in this financial year we anticipate that we will easily double our contacts for 2020/21. Despite the additional pressure this has brought, I have an amazing team of staff and volunteers supporting me to ensure the helpline service runs to full capacity.
How have you had to adapt to the current circumstances?
As Covid-19 hit with lockdown restrictions, at Mermaids we soon realised that we had to take some of our work with young people and their families online, so we quickly adapted to a new way of working. Within weeks of the lockdown our communications team came up with the idea of a Digital Festival which brought a host of celebrities together with our staff, volunteers, young people and parents for a day of music, conversation and celebration of gender diversity. We soon followed this up by updating our training for organisations and professionals to deliver it via an online portal which has been a huge success with a number of sessions taking place each week.
We have also launched staff and volunteer led virtual groups for parents and youth groups for our young people. These groups of course run alongside our online forums and give parents/carers and young people a chance to connect with each other in a safe moderated space.
What help can you provide for individuals within the LGBTQI community?
Our remit at Mermaids is to support gender diverse young people, but we often find that it crosses over with other parts of the LGBQI community. Our initial steps are to support any young person who contacts us with questions or concerns regarding their gender; it may be that they themselves do not have any issues or concerns in themselves, but that other people’s attitude can make them feel uncomfortable and unhappy.
Our helpline service gives each young person the opportunity to call, email or contact us via web chat which will often be the first step a young person will take to reach out to us. During that contact we find out what support we can offer, sometimes it can be that they just want to talk. These conversations can range from exploring their gender, asking us what they can do about a specific issue, to maybe wanting to simply talk about how their day has been. We can also pass on links to different information such as videos, articles or even other organisations depending on what they have contacted us for. At this stage we will also let a young person know about our online youth forum where we offer a moderated space for them to be able to connect with others on a similar journey.
What are you doing to move forward in these difficult times?
The biggest changes Mermaids have made to move forward in these difficult times is to move much of our support and work online. In addition to the changes we have made to ensure our service users are provided for, we have looked at how we support our staff and volunteer teams. We ensure that all staff and volunteers know they can contact another colleague for a chat. We have a virtual staff meeting on a weekly basis then the department teams do separate meetings regularly during the week as well as being able to call out in our staff group to ask someone to join them for a chat.
The next step for me directly is to work with my team to looks at ways to transfer our helpline volunteer training online. Unlike other training, the helpline service relies on a lot of contact to understand how best to support gender diverse young people, their families and professionals, so we need to look at the right way to deliver that.
How can people support Mermaids?
Firstly, by finding out about our work and the support that we offer so that they can give factually correct information when people or groups talk about us. Sharing our comments/notices on social media also helps hugely to get information about the charity out into the public domain.
For me, as the Helpline Service Manager, one of the main ways anyone can support the charity is to become involved with our work by applying to volunteer as a Helpline Service Operator. Volunteers are vitally important to Mermaids and the work we are doing.
Head to the Mermaids website for more information, or call 0808 801 0400 if you need to speak to a helpline operator.