For the last two decades Annemarie Bell has been a familiar face to young people at Pennyburn Youth Club. Earlier this month, she took over as Leader-in-Charge of the club.
The 49-year-old never believed she would find herself in such a position as she was an ‘under-achiever’ at school. However, youth work was clearly something she was always destined to do and she has dedicated her life to it.
Annemarie grew up in Shantallow in the 1970s at a time when young people relied heavily on voluntary youth clubs.
“I went to the Shantallow Voluntary Youth Club from the age of five to 14. All the youth workers were voluntary, just ordinary people from the area who wanted to do something. They met the needs of the community to make it a better place to live and did so much to get the young people off the streets and protect them from rioting. They put their whole life into the young people and treated you like one of their own.”
She got involved in voluntary work with the youth club at a very young age, coaching football.
Annemarie went on to volunteer with the Shantallow Controlled Youth Club when she left school.
“I really didn’t achieve at school. I went to Carnhill High School and after leaving there with little or no qualifications I went into a workshop and did painting and decorating. I wanted to do something that I could put to use in everyday life.
“Then I became a machinist in the Lee Factory and was voluntering in the youth club four nights a week.”
In 1991, Annemarie made a move that would change her whole life. She got a part-time paid position in Pennyburn Youth Club, under the leadership of Gerry O’Kane and Brendan Wilkinson.
It is these men she credits with giving her the confidence and self-esteem to chase her dreams of working with young people on a full time basis and gaining formal qualifications.
“I was empowered when I came to Pennyburn. It was as if someone handed me confidence and self-esteem overnight. The youth workers really believed in me and saw potential that I didn’t see in myself.
“I really liked working with young people and it was something I always wanted to do.”
After spending some time in Jersey and travelling around Europe, it was Brendan Wilkinson who encouraged Annemarie to go back to education.
“When Brendan suggested I go and do my degree I laughed in his face. The negativity of not being academic came back again and I didn’t think I could do it.”
But, at 26-years-old, Annemarie moved to Reading to complete a three year degree in youth work.
“I wouldn’t have been ready to study as a teenager. I never dreamt or anticipated going to university. At that time it was only really people with money or people who were really smart that tended to go to university.
“I didn’t believe I had the ability, but Brendan encouraged me and without him I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
After graduating from Reading, Annemarie continued her education at Magee University studying for a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies.
She then became a mental health worker, specialising in working with young people who have disabilities.
“I loved working with young people with disabilities, and young people in general. It allows me to give back something to the community because they gave me so much.”
In 1998 she was appointed deputy leader-in-charge of Pennyburn Youth Club.
“At the start it was hard to leave work behind and not allow it to take over my life. Kids out there do have a lot of problems but I see the person and not the problem. I find it easier now to leave the baggage behind but sometimes work follows you and you get phone calls from young people who are in need.”
She considers the hundreds of young people who walk through the door of the youth club like her own children and admits ‘they are my life’.
In the fortnight since she was appointed Leader-in-Charge, Annemarie has implemented many new projects and has big plans for the future of Pennyburn Youth Club.
“We now have a Saturday night club, from 8pm to 11pm to facilitate those young people who are not old enough to go out the town.”
She also plans to run an after schools club two days a week as well as continuing the personal development programmes, suicide awareness projects and disability awareness projects that the youth club is famed for.
“Our doors are open to everyone. It is a neutral venue and we have people attending the club from all over the city.”
The club also recently received a half million pound grant for renovations.
Annemarie has put her life into the club and has one bit of advice for anyone struggling with confidence.
“I never thought I would have my own club. My advice to anyone is follow your dreams, your heart, listen to other people around you and don’t ever sell yourself short. There are no stupid people in this world everyone has a skill.”