The winner of the GDST Alumna of the Year Trailblazer of the Year 2020 is Howell’s School, Llandaff alumna Chloe Smith.
Chloe was nominated for the award as the founder of the Bigmoose Coffee Company, which mentors trains and employs vulnerable and homeless people in the city of Cardiff. Established in 2015, Bigmoose became a registered charity in 2019 with a focus on mental health, homelessness and the prevention of suicide.
Chloe has now set her sights on helping young people who are still in education, and approached Sally Davis, Principal at Howell’s School, Llandaff to pilot the idea, offering a unique programme of support. We met up with her at the end of December, just a few days before Bigmoose was forced to close its doors when Wales went into Tier 4, and the coffee shop was buzzing with shoppers popping in for lunch or a quick pitstop coffee.
“Sharing stories is so important; in life you can learn so much from other people’s experiences”
What prompted you to start mentoring young people?
At the beginning of last year, we’d just taken on a new manager who was running things at the shop, which freed up a lot of time for me, and I spent most of the first lockdown thinking, “What do I want to do, and how can I fill that time?” Over the summer, I went into Howell’s and saw Sally Davis and we began developing the idea and looked at me mentoring specific students, offering one-to-ones and really focussed support tailored to their individual needs.
In practical terms, how has that worked?
I’ve done some work with the whole of Year 11 in groups of eight, and I’m now in school twice a week, seeing 11 different students aged between 15 and 18, for one-to-one sessions. We work on self-care and self-worth; how to plan their weeks; staying on top of their work and I offer mental health support. I have created a journal for them to use to help them to be more mindful in the way they act and the way they look after themselves and not just work-work-work all the time
What are the main concerns that the students have?
I think everything feels like it’s too much for them; they are overwhelmed with COVID, their exams, their friendships, and coming in and out of lockdowns. They tell me they are working for six hours on a Saturday, but when we look at their phone use they are being distracted from every direction, so it’s about teaching them how to work smarter, not harder. I use the Forest app with them—you put it on for a certain amount of time and as long as you don’t touch your phone, it will grow a little tree, but if you use your phone, it kills the tree. So we’re building our own little forests, one tree at a time.
What are you hoping to give the students?
The goal for me is to give them a toolbelt that they wear every single day for life. No-one else can see it apart from them, and within that belt they need to have different tools that will help them through different situations. The journal will go in there, some meditation practises and breathing techniques to help during a moment of anxiety or before exams.
One term in, how much progress have you seen?
I set them individual challenges each week, and I will email them through the week so I can check in with them between sessions. A lot of them struggle with confidence, particularly with public speaking or even speaking during lessons. I set one student the task to put her hand up in a lesson twice in a week, which might not sound like much, but it was a really big deal to her. And we came together again after two weeks, and she’d managed to do it. That is so much progress for that student, and a step in the right direction towards feeling confident in other areas of her life.
Why do you think that it has been a success?
The students don’t see me as a member of school staff, so we’re able to have a really open dialogue, and because I’m still quite close to their age, I think they can relate to me. And they have seen the changes that have happened as a result of the things they have told me, so they feel like I’m on their side.
What sort of changes have there been?
The Year 11 girls told me that they want to have more PE lessons, and that they felt that they knew what they needed to revise, but not how to approach the revision itself. We’re doing a gifting programme, where Year 11 where have had nine lesson periods gifted to them over the term; they are doing extra PE sessions, and Sally has led How To Revise workshops with them in small groups.
What is the next step for the students you are mentoring?
The goal is to sign them off, taking away the skills they have learned and coming back to me when they feel they need a refresher session. I’d love to introduce the people who have made such good progress through the Bigmoose programmes to Howell’s, so that they can inspire the students as well. Sharing stories is so important; in life you can learn so much from other people’s experiences.
Will you be offering this programme to other schools?
I’d love to do more work with the GDST. This has been a brilliant pilot, and I’ve had so much support from Howell’s and Mrs Davis. Together, we’ve worked out exactly how to make it work, but I’d love to do work across GDST schools, whether that is offering talks or popping in for a full day. The GDST have played a huge part in my story so far, and it’s definitely part of my future.