INTERVIEW: Glen Development Initiative - ‘It’s a great community to work in, and the COVID response is amazing’

When COVID arrived back in March 2020, people working in the community sectors across the North West saw their work disrupted as routines and plans for the future were thrown into the chaos and life as we knew it ground to a halt.

Friday, 12th March 2021, 1:42 pm

But to their credit, they wasted no time in reorganising, assessing and addressing the needs of local people.

Glen Development Initiative has been among those in Derry to the fore of that work over the past 12 months, building on the huge amount of community, social and environmental projects they have developed down the years.

The GDI, as it is better known, was founded almost 16 years ago and was an amalgamation of Glen Community Association (which ran out of Glenview Community Centre, where the GCI is currently based) and the Glen Development Association, which was run from a portable cabin in The Glen estate play park. One of the groups ran a youth club and fun days, while the other ran a parent toddler group and a bowling club.

The superheroes on tour.

Recalling the merger, Adrian Kelly, who has been manager of the GDI for the past three years and prior to that was the youth worker, said: “In and around 2005 with neighbourhood renewal on the radar and funding coming about a number of people in the area, mainly the likes of Dermot O’Hara, Lexie Doherty, started talking about merging the two groups. They came up to the AGM at Glenview and GDI was established the following year.”

The new community organisation soon secured funding from the then Department of Social Development to recruit a manager and two development workers. “They saw the need that was there in Upper Glen/ Lower Rosemount and The Glen estate and it was about how do we bring those two small enough communities together. This was the main focus of the two development workers. We looked then at the redevelopment of the community and the regeneration of this area>2 Adrian said.

One of the first major projects the GDI embarked on was the development of the Glen Play Park and MUGA, and it was, Adrian said, a statement of intent, showing the residents the potential of GDI to lobby and secure for better services for local people. They soon connected with other community groups in Ballymagroarty and Rosemount and established what is now known as the Outer West Neighbourhood Renewal Area, which caters for Ballymagroarty, Hazelbank, Rosemount and The Glen and works collectively along four themes - physical regeneration, economic renewal, social renewal and community renewal. GDI’s two development workers Bronagh McCallion and Lisa Moore Maguire - both of whom have been there from day one - work on physical renewal and economic renewal.

Since those early days, GDI has gone to develop and partner on numerous projects and programmes. Lisa’s role in physical renewal has seen GDI to the fore in “big ticket” redevelopments such as Creggan Burn Park, the Doire ColmCille GAA pitch, Lowry’s Lane, Brooke Park, Ballymagroarty Pitch and Park and the redevelopment of Rosemount Resource Centre, as well as future plans for developing a second pitch in Doire ColmCille, a new community and youth centre for The Glen and also a community centre in Ballymagroarty. This has all been happening alongside the community work and economic renewal work in terms of employment training, advice and mentoring service and environmental projects.

Adrian Kelly, manager of Glen Development Initiative, on left, with a local resident.

Speaking about the make-up of GDI, Adrian said: “We would four or five core groups within our community organisation - The Glen Parent and Toddlers, The Glen Youth Club, The Glen Women’s Group, The Glen Men’s Shed/ Hen Shed and The Glen Golden Years - an over 50s/ Over 60s group. They all have their own committees and we set them up to be self-sustainable. They would be our main groups, and through a normal week pre-COVID we had four dancing schools in here, a bowling club, a horticultural group, a photography club, sewing groups and so on -a whole range of different community services and groups. Citizens Advice also operate out of here and offer a welfare advice and other services.”

And then COVID struck.

In years to come when people look back on the extraordinary events of the past 12 months, one of the positive memories that will stand out will be the sheer joy on the faces of the young and the not so young as superheroes and colourful characters paraded through their streets. And the GDI team along with St Mary’s Youth Club in Creggan were among the first to provide such services

Recalling how that came about, Adrian said: “If you remember back to last year, you were lucky to meet 10 cars on the road - it was a ghost town, communities were ghost towns. We had the Easter bunny costume here anyway, so we decided to spread a bit of cheer and thought, why don’t we just take him out. So we ended up with the Easter bunny on a back of a van and driving round the area and throwing sweets into people’s gardens. It was the height of everybody wearing gloves and hand sanitising, and it was a surreal experience looking back, but that’s how we started then engaging residents outside our normal catchment area.”

On street excercise as part of the Covid Community Response.

Rewinding a few months back to March 2020 and those first days of the lockdown, exactly a year ago next week, Adrian recalls: “The first response we did was make sure that the most vulnerable residents within our communities were going to be protected. In and around March 15th, Darren O’Reilly, the youth worker in Rosemount, the manager of Ballymagroarty and myself, and Mark Doherty who chaired the Foyleside Response Team set about discussing how we were going to do that. Shortage of food was talked about, people not leaving their house and unable to get shopping, and we came up with a plan. We were really thankful shortly after that that the Department for Communities and the Minister Deirdre Hargey in partnership with the Council provided us with around £20,000 across all the areas to provide a rapid community response to help people with shortages of oil, electric, food and that funding allowed us to also create activity packs further down the line.”

And the demand and the rapid response in the community was unprecedented. “It’s a small enough area but at one point we were doing 400 food boxes a week.

“We relied heavily on volunteers at that time. If it wasn’t for people at that time willing to put themselves at risk to actually go out and make sure that the older people, vulnerable people were going to be protected God knows where we would have been at during the summer of last year. We could have been in the position Italy was in, but due to the nature of people of Derry and the Derry communities we were able to provide an excellent community response to COVID.

“When things started to ease a bit we looked at how do we reinvent the wheel in terms of community delivery. We looked at the likes on street exercise.

Local Glen Development Initiative team clearing out one of the lanes in the area with residents.

“We brought a local Personal Trainer and music into local areas, knocked on doors an said, ‘Right, 20 minute exercise class here, are yous coming out?’ and people loved it. They came out into their front gardens with their children, stayed at the garden gate and did exercises and it created a real buzz. It was something we’d started to miss, that real street-by-street community activity. You always heard your granny talking about the stuff that went on in the likes of the Bog and Creggan during the Conflict where people relied on streets to come together so that’s what we started to look at.

“We did on-street bingo, music nights in the summer. Rather than do the big events that community groups are really good at we reviewed that and as an alternative to bonfires and brought in street by street fun days. We ended up doing four streets, with inflatables, animal farms, which just allowed people for that moment over the summer to feel normal again. It was looked after by staff, younger people, residents and even the bingo nights, that was local people in our communities who volunteered.”

The aforementioned superhero parades - dedicated to all frontline workers in the NHS, shops and elsewhere - were a big part of that activity, and grew to become a city-wide phenomenon. “The superheroes captured that moment in time,” Adrian said. “After Easter I just said to our youth worker, ‘We have all those costumes lying up there that we hire out for birthday parties and stuff, why don’t we throw them on for a day and go round for a bit of craic?’ We ended up doing our own area first of all, and then Ballymagroarty. Then Rosemount and Pennyburn wanted it in, and we were getting phone calls from Triax, Shantallow, the Waterside, asking, ‘when are you coming to this street?’

“These were young people giving up their own time and other areas were willing to pay for them to come in. We have a party people social enterprise here run by our young people to bring money into the area and employ local young people so they ended up working right up to the end of July covering as far as Ardmore, Curryneirin, Newbuildings. It was just Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, Batman and Ickle Pickle and so on but the atmosphere it brought to streets it was just amazing. You see Disney parades in Florida but this was just a wee community group doing this and it really meant a lot to people.”

The success was repeated with the Santa parades in the run up to Christmas and The Men’s Shed got involved by customising a trailer. “We went into Foyle Springs and there was this older woman coming up the street in a zimmer frame and waving at Santa, It was lovely seeing the smile on her face, she was like an eight your old girl. It was just brilliant. We had a big PA system and Santa had a microphone. We were going into streets where you knew people and you’d whisper to Santa the children’s names and he would call their names out.”

He added that the past year has seen GDI engaging with a lot more people through its outreach work, including vulnerable and isolated people they delivered food parcels to. It also showcased the brilliant efforts of young people and promoted cross-generational integration.

Glen Womens and Golden Years Group - Reimaging project for Reclaim your lane.

Adrian, who has worked with the GDI for almost a decade, said he was extremely proud of how people have pulled together, and not just over the past year. “I love the area, it’s a great community to work in, I’ve a great team here and a great board of directors always on hand to give us advice. The team we do have here, there’s nothing you can’t ask them.”

Another major success story for GDI has been the refurbishment of laneways. “The area we are in - The Glen, Rosemount, Pennyburn, Lower Strand - it has been well documented they have been notorious hotspots for dumping in the lanes. So we, as part of our physical regeneration, looked at what can we do to clean these, as they are not adopted.”

After an initial project two years ago proved successful, over the past year a further 26 laneways have been cleaned with young people and members of the Men’s Shed among those involved. As part of all this, history boards telling the story of the area and the people who have come from it, from Nobel laureate John Hume to Derry Girls star Jamie Lee O’Donnell, have been erected at the entrances to the laneways, which has become a trail and a community resource in its own right, contributing to the sense of communal identity and pride for residents at a time when more people are out walking.

Looking forward, GDI has big plans for the future, as Adrian reveals: “We are finalising our designs for a new centre. We really, really need a new community and youth facility because the services and facilities in this area are outdated. We have outgrown them and when you bring in social distancing and group sizes, we cannot do what we were already finding difficult to do pre-COVID.

“We are thankful that the likes Council, Department of Education, Department for Communities have all put money forward to ensure this capital development. It’s £2.2m for a new youth and community facility, which will be combined with the redevelopment of the Creggan Burn parkland so we have started engaging in that process on what additional resources we can put in to make it more welcoming rather than what it has been for 30 plus years, which is just a magnet for anti-community behaviour. This year hopefully we will receive planning permission for the new centre and next year we’ll see diggers on site and that will be another sign to the community on what we have set about seeking to deliver for the people of this great area.”

Glen Party people social enterprise as part of Foyleside Santa Express.