In the 18 months since the Tuned In Project opened its doors in Derry, it has helped transform the lives and prospects of numerous local young people with disabilities.
And after successfully organising and staging a series of major creative events and concerts, the teenagers are now preparing for another milestone with the launch of their own radio station.
Manager at the Springtown-based project, Philip Conn, said it was only right that young people with learning difficulties were given opportunities to take on responsibility, learn new skills, contribute to society and take charge of their own futures.
Explaining the background to the project, Philip said: “We opened September 2013 and we have 40 students aged 14 to 20 in total who attend. 20 come two days a week and then a different 20 come the other two days.
“We’re funded by the National Lottery’s Big Lottery Programme. We operate on a four-day week, and we run a Youth Drop-In on a Thursday evening where they come in and have a bit of craic, run their own disco.
“We partner with different organisations but mostly with the school, Ardnashee School and College. A lot of the young people would be students there.
“The students come down and study a number of different subjects. The main classes we have would be in DJing; Music Making, they make their own music; Event Management, which involves the young people learn how to run and manage their own events; and Video Production as well.
“We have had four or five big events in the last year or so. We did a club night at St Columb’s Hall, an acoustic night at Legenderry Warehouse Cafe, and we have had Trip To The ’Trail which is a festival we run at the Playtrail every year and which will be coming up this year again.
“The young people come in and learn how to manage events. They are involved in the running and management of those events. They would go up and look at the venues, decide which venues they like the best. They would talk to the manager there, try and book the venue.
“We support them as best we can to do that, and the long-term plan being that these events become marginally profitable and we will then be able to pay the young people a wage. At the minute they’re not, but there’s potential there for them to be profitable.
“It’s all about introducing them into work and it’s a transition project, moving young people from 16/ 17 years of age in second level education to either third level education, jobs or further training and employment opportunities. That’s what we are doing. We are trying to equip them with more skills.
“Some people will say, ‘sure you are doing singing, dancing, DJing. How does that help them to move on?’ What we are actually doing is building their confidence, building their self-determination so that they are more prepared to take decisions about their life and act on those decisions. Which gives them more potential then in the future to go out and look for employment, look for training that actually would suit them.
“Their disabilities range from mild learning disabilities to sometimes severe autism- and some of these young people would have behavioural issues so part of our remit here is these young people would be at risk of leaving education because of their behaviour, so they come here to alleviate that stress and strain and try to maintain their education as well.”
Philip said that moving through that transition and being able to access courses and employment they themselves want to do is something many people with disabilities and learning difficulties found difficult and challenging.
“A lot of the time I think personally disabled people are kind of steered into things that parents think are good for them or professionals think are good for them, but I don’t think that is always the right way.
“We have got to encourage disabled people to take their own ideas on things, and their own notions and be as independent as possible and make their own decisions and choices in life.
“Ultimately that leads to happier people; people who are happier in the world that they live in. And if you have someone who is happier it doesn’t just improve their working life or their daily life, it improves everything around them, their relationships with parents, friends, their social life, which is such a big issue with disabled people, social exclusion, or inclusion. It improves all those things.
“Tuned In tries to lay those foundations for a more positive outcome in their future life. We do have a Life Skills programme here and they will come out with an OCN-accredited qualification in Life Skills. Most young people will do that. They also do qualifications on other skills, DJing, video production. The Band Aid video we did before Christmas is an example of the video work we do.
“Some of the young people here will return to education, some will be old enough to move on to other opportunities, other programmes running throughout Derry. There are different groups out there that offer services a bit like ours but for adults, 18 to 25 or 18 to 40/50/60 year old and we would work with them to try and move the young people onto those groups or to further education, the likes of Nerve Centre of North West Regional College to do a course there if they are capable.
“For me it boils down to finding out what the young people actually are interested in doing. Let’s find out what they are into rather than us just fitting them into a box because it suits us, because it looks good for us because we moved them on to something.”
The staff and young people from Tuned also work in partnership with a range of other local groups including Headliners youth media project, who have been getting involved in personal development work.
“We try to diversify what we are doing in here with the young people and provide them with as many opportunities as we can,” Philip said. “We have worked with young people in Rosemount and we will work more with them coming into the summer.
“We have also worked with Circle of Support, which provide autism services, and we went down and performed at World Autism Day last year. We also work with Disability Action. They had a Disability Parade there in November and we were up singing at that.”
As well as this, the team at Tuned In have actually organised a regular series of concerts for the residents at Foyleville Care Home on Academy Road.
“We had the council on to us as well about diversifying that so it looks like a different nursing home once a month,” Philip said.
The young people who make up Tuned In take part in two-year cycles, and the hard-working staff and music and production tutors are already noticing a difference in what the young people can do and are willing to try.
“We see it every day the staff team and I see the change in self-esteem,” Philip said. “We actually measure it, we have a person who comes in and does external evaluation but we also do our own, we have seen an increase in confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, even happiness scales.
“We see them more sociable, more confident. If a visitor comes in, we had young people a year ago who would have shied away and not wanted to speak to them whereas now they’re quite happy to come up and say hello. If we are going out to perform we had young people a year ago that would have shied away and wouldn’t want to go on stage and wouldn’t have wanted to sing in front of people whereas now they’re starting to step out and sing in front of people.
“We had young people who didn’t want to be recorded on a microphone and now they’re up and being recorded, and we are finding out they are absolutely wonderful singers and have a lovely voice. “We’re building on that constantly. Initially you’d think ‘how can it build confidence, people getting up singing?’ Until you see it a year down the line. We have parents who come in and tell us how they have changed.”
While the young people experience freedom and independence on site, at the same time they have their time-table of classes.
“It’s about instilling that ethos in them that nothing in life comes for free, you have got to work for it,” Philip said.
“We do give them daily tasks and things to do round the building as well so every day a student will have to hoover up, another will have to go do the bins collect all the rubbish and put it in the bin outside, another will have to do the dishes and clean down the kitchen. We cycle that with all students throughout the year.
“There’s no exceptions to that, everybody has to have a go at something and if they can’t physically do it because they may be a wheelchair, we would buddy them up with someone so they will have to tell the buddy what needs done.
“I would love to do more of that and that is something we will develop.
“A part of our Life Skills course we took them out to a couple of local parks and did litter pick ups with them and explained why we were doing it, because it wasn’t nice for kids of three or four coming into a play park with litter. That’s about showing that there is nothing wrong with giving back to your community once in a while.”
The young people also helped pack up food hampers for families in need in the run up to Christmas.
“I asked for volunteers and 10 or 12 kids showed up and said yes, we would like to do that. They enjoy the craic, the social aspect of doing things together, achieving a goal, rather than just sitting and watching TV,” Philip said.
Young people are normally referred to Tuned In through their school, but Philip said parents and carers are welcome to get in touch if they wanted to find out more.
Speaking about his own Tuned In highlights over the past 18 months, Philip: “Trip to The Trail was a massive highlight. We had 350 young people at that last year and for me I would say as close as you can get to true inclusion. Whenever our last band came up on stage we had 300 young people at the amphitheatre at the Playtrail and pretty much all of them were up dancing and carrying on together and they were mixed. It wasn’t like I was seeing a group of disabled people dancing and carrying on, and a group of non-disabled people dancing and carrying on, it was a whole mix of people who were non-disabled and disabled who were all dancing and enjoying the music together; who were enjoying the craic and the banter.
“The day had led to that because they had been doing activities together, graffiti art, painting their faces Festivals-style, doing open deck DJing with each other. In events like that in the past I have seen segregation where people don’t want to mix with each other, whereas at the end of this I just stood back and went ‘whoah’.
“We also supported The Plantin’ band at the album launch. I had only really started here and it was a real positive thing to pull that together and see it come to fruition.
“Every day in here I love every day having a buzz off the students. Every day is different. We have 20 personalities coming through that door in the morning. There’s so many highlights, every time we do a performance is a highlight for me; every time we go and show the public what people with disabilities can do whenever you give them a chance and give them the right support. I find the response and the support of the public to what we do absolutely amazing.”
But there is no time for resting on their achievements, and with the New Year the Tuned In studios are back to being a hive of activity.
Philip said: “Paddy Nash from Paddy Nash and the Happy Enchiladas is in working with us. One of our groups has re-worded his song ‘Times of Transition’ and written it themselves and Paddy has recorded that with them now.
“Ardnashee School want to have a showcase of talent so they are going to go up in perform at a local theatre. Dance tutors are working towards a dance to go with song as well, to perform that with those showcase of Ardnashee talent some time in the future.
“Other things we will be doing, we are going to try and create another video. We don’t know what we are going to do yet but knowing the students it will probably be something like ‘It’s All About That Base’. We’ll let them pick something this year.”
And then there’s the new radio station. Speaking about the project, Philip said they are hopeful the wider community will get involved.
He said: “We had put in an application to Awards For All and they gave us a few pound to start up a radio station so we have set up one of the rooms in the building as a radio station and that facilitates three young people going in and host the programme at any one time.
“We are working towards a launch mid-February and we will prerecorded programmes for going on air, and then towards then Easter time we are hoping to go live where the young people will produce an hour-long live programme very week.
“The whole idea of the radio station is again just about giving young people the opportunity to showcase what they can do, build their confidence.
“They will get to pick tracks they are into, and we hope to develop that into them having their own 20 minute/ 30 minute slots; their own shows.
“There are other Internet radio stations throughout the UK that work with people with learning disabilities and we’re hoping to link in with them too. If we do an hour long prerecord, they can play that on their servers.
“Work has already started on all this and we have a radio tutor that comes in and supports them.
The studio is set up and we’ve been working for the last six weeks or so with the young people prepping them to go on radio. They have all been practising what it is like to talk into a mic, what it is like to hear yourself, and even things to talk about on the radio. And they have been looking at programming- one person is interested in music and films, another is into local music.
“It’s also about getting the community involved so the facility is there for other groups from the community to come down and use the radio station and broadcast. If there were any groups out there that were keen to do their own show for an hour they can come down and publicise it on their own Facebook or social media and people can log in through our website to listen to whatever they are putting out. We will help to show them how it all works and how to produce their own shows.”
Anyone wishing to contact Tuned In can ring 028 71367029.