Despite some tentative signs of recovery, Inishowen as a whole has been hit by unemployment, recession, emigration and early school leaving over the past decade.
But for hundreds of young people in the peninsula, a long-running programme has given them education, hope and esteem while also honing and celebrating their skills and individuality.
Youthreach, which is based in both Buncrana and Glengad, focuses on our young people who leave school early.
This can happen for a variety of reasons. Some young people may feel the school system and curriculum is not for them and does not adhere to their needs and skills. Others are, perhaps, bullied or are dealing with other issues which means school life is not what is best for them as a person.
This is where Youthreach steps in, offering them an alternative, both in attitude and education, where they can build on their strengths while also achieving qualifications.
The Journal met with Youthreach co-ordinator Jayne O’Donnell in Buncrana recently to find out just what Youthreach is all about and why and how has been such a success.
Based in the Adult Education Centre in Buncrana, or the ‘Old Tech’ as it is sometimes locally known, Youthreach currently has 38 young people from the ages of 14-20 on its programme.
They come from across Inishowen, right up into Newtowncunningham. The centres are based between Buncrana, which was established in 1991 and Glengad, which was set up in 1999. As transport in the more rural parts of Inishowen is non-existent, Youthreach runs its own buses to ensure the trainees can get to classes, which take place from Monday to Friday.
Despite early school leaving being seen as a ‘past problem,’ Jayne tells how it is still a big issue in rural areas such as Inishowen, or those where trades such as plastering, carpentry and fishing prevail. Many young people also leave school to seek work, finding it’s just not there anymore.
This is where Youthreach comes in, offering them a programme completely different to a regular school day. Education is still key, but it does not focus on the school curriculum, Instead, each person is given an individual plan. Subjects are more practical and aimed towards their skill sets and likes, such as woodwork, hairdressing, cookery and communiciations. Classrooms are between five and six people, meaning each person feels they are “really heard.” There is no homework and each trainee receives an allowance.
And it is here in which they soar, in an environment which embraces the individual while also promoting inclusiveness and communication.
As Youthreach teaches Fetac level 3 and 4, they can also still achieve their qualifications and figure out which career suits them via work experience with local firms.
The trainees also go on numerous outings, sometimes with others who attend centres across Donegal. They go to the cinema, bowling, and many other group activities that introduces them to more of their peers.
They also hold events such as the very popular Masterchef, which allows their parents to be included, as well as quizzes and blitzes.
Jayne tells how there is also a big emphasis on sport and getting fit. In fact, an ex-Youthreach trainee, John Doherty, went on to set up his own sports-focused business and now teaches others who attend the programme.
And, it’s not all about practical skills. There are also awareness programmes and certificates in areas such as sexual health, first aid, mental health and drugs and alcohol.
Jayne tells how Youthreach, which is co-funded by the Department of Education and Skills and the European Union, also promotes a forward-thinking “restorative approach,” for which they have received funding under Peace III.
She says: “If there is an issue, instead of someone being suspended or expelled, everyone sits down and has a meeting. Both sides are hears and everyone takes responsibility.”
She added the approach works with both trainees and tutors, getting rid of the culture of blame.
“It’s about a community approach and it’s about respect,” she says.
Working with community is also a core emphasis of the programme and trainees have worked alongside the Feel Good Fortnight festival which promotes positive mental health.
They also help their local Tidy Towns committees during their clean-ups and get involved in numerous community initiatives and activities.
Jayne thanked the local community for being “really supportive” in ensuring the trainees receive positive work experience which has, on many occasions, led to full-time employment.
She adds: “Most of the trainees here will tell us they love it here as it’s the first time they’ve really been heard as an individual.”