Helping young people in difficult circumstances is challenging – but organisations are well placed to assist each other

11 Jan 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 Jan 2019

Partnership doesn’t have to mean joint projects – it can just be about regularly sharing ideas. The response of several youth groups brought together by the Urban Villages Initiative shows the value of strategic co-operation.

There is no perfect plan for youth services, particularly where they are most needed.

Offering help to young people in difficult circumstances throws up a number of problems, with local knowledge often a significant help with engagement – however, that is not to say that different challenging environments do not share a lot in common.

‘Difficult circumstances’ is a broad term encompassing, but not limited to, any combination of growing up in poverty, poor mental health or a sense of weak prospects, involvement or closeness to crime or antisocial behaviour, or more. Often these are interlinked.

In Northern Ireland, the third sector plays a huge role in trying to obviate against these issues and any problems stemming from them. Co-operation is vital, even ideas sharing between groups whose frontline work doesn’t necessarily overlap.

Late last year, a number of youth organisations, and others who work with young people in various capacities, where brought together in Crumlin Road Gaol to discuss Delivering Youth Services in Challenging Environments.

The event was organised by the Urban Villages Initiative – a statutory initiative established as part of Together: Building a United Community, with the aim of sharing lessons from the frontline and ideas best practice.

Three North Belfast organisations made presentations about their ongoing work but the event involved groups from all five Urban Village areas in NI – Ardoyne and Greater Ballysillan in North Belfast; Colin (West Belfast); the Lower Newtownards Road (East Belfast); Sandy Row, Donegall Pass and the Markets (South Belfast); and the Bogside and Fountain areas of L’Derry.

Ongoing work

Northern Ireland Alternatives is a charity that grew out of a restorative-justice pilot project in the Greater Shankill area that began two decades ago. The success of this pilot saw it expand into other areas and it now has five different branches – North, East and South Belfast, and North Down, as well as the original Greater Shankill.

Alternatives offers a wide range of different services such as Intensive Youth Support, Mediation and Community Support, and works with NEETs and on Employability Services (including its START programme, in conjunction with Include Youth, which operates in Greater Shankill, South Belfast and North Down).

Joan Totten, from North Belfast Alternatives, spoke about pathways to further education, training and community work and the impact of these projects across schools and community (Alternatives has information on some of their schools work here).

Catherine Couvert and Shane Whelehan from Ardoyne Youth Enterprise (AYE) outlined some of the statistics gathered from a survey where they listened to young people and gave them a voice in community.

Asking existing or potential service users about what they actually want from providers is becoming accepted best practice across more and more relevant statutory and non-profit initiatives.

This is perhaps even more important when it comes to dealing with young people who are difficult circumstances, who can be acutely suspicious of institutions trying to impose ideas upon them – and who also want to feel like they are been seen and valued as an individual, by another individual, rather than some template person to be handed a bundle of off-the-shelf provision (although this is more or less true of all people, in fact).

Scope previously spoke with AYE about their youth survey – called Listen Up! - which was a mammoth undertaking but which provided young people in the area with a chance to have their voices heard, and gave the organisation with a tremendous amount of valuable information to help them tailor their services.

YEHA and Streetbeat talked about the effectiveness of young people as peer mentors in schools with training and focus on mental health and well-being as well as the creation of safe environments for young people.

The value of co-operation

The event was very well received – which shows the value of sharing ideas.

Debbie McCormick, from the Princes Trust, said: “I think it’s great for the Urban Villages team to get so many people together to talk about the issues that affect young people universally, I think we need to put our heads together more.”

Joan Totten, from NB Alternatives, said: “It was informative and maybe should be done more often, we could create a critical analysis group where we’re holding up our own work and learning from each other across this Urban Villages partnership.”

Linsey Farrell, Director, Urban Villages Initiative, said: “It is great to see how the youth providers across Ballysillan and Ardoyne have come together to share learning on how to deliver better outcomes for young people in their area.

“It was so good to have other youth-focused organisations from across all of the five Urban Village areas in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry attend this event in North Belfast, to take this learning further afield. This type of event builds community capacity and fosters positive community identity as organisations gain a better understanding of each other’s work and how to make a difference in young people’s lives.”

The question now is one of how organisations, along with statutory agencies, can most effectively share ideas in a continuous and efficient way.

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