£3.3 million St Mary’s Youth Club opens in Derry
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The £3.3million youth club was opened by Education Minister Michelle McIlveen in a ceremony at the club on Wednesday.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, the Minister said: “This is a great day for everyone at St Mary’s Youth Club and the wider community in Creggan. The new facility provides much needed, fit-for-purpose accommodation for current and future children and young people in the local area.
“It is the 50th anniversary of St Mary’s Youth Club. I am confident this newly built facility will continue to make a significant impact on youth work in the Creggan area for many years to come. This has been a significant investment worth in excess of £3million, showing my Department’s commitment to providing help and support to the Voluntary Youth Sector. The Youth Club delivers an important service, providing young people with a safe and friendly environment to meet and develop their individual skills. This will in turn, allow the young people to enhance these skills within their local community and improve their educational outlook.
“I would like to acknowledge the efforts of all those who made this rebuild possible, including consultants, architects, contractors and officials. I would also like to recognise the tireless work and dedication from Stephen Mallet, former centre manager at St Mary’s Youth Club, in helping to bring this project to fruition.”
St Mary’s Youth Club now has a membership of over 1,000 young people, ranging from 5-25 year olds, and operates seven nights a week. The Youth Club provides personal development, one to one counselling, creative and sporting activities, such as boxing and gymnastics and developmental group work, for the young people within the local area.
Kathleen Doherty, chairperson of St. Mary’s Youth Club, gave a short history of the youth club over the past 50 years. She said: “After they started builiding this estate in 1946 - that’s how far back it goes - the red-brick houses above St Joseph’s were the first to be completed. The site opposite and the storage facilities was left empty on Beechwood Crescent. Fr Mong, who was overseeing Creggan before the curch was built, made that secure for the boys in the area. Girls were not considered in the early days.
“The boys club flourished and it catered for socials; there were dances on a Wednesday night, films for the young on a Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, and the community looked forward to the annual rickety wheel, which ran for two weeks in December. These events provided funding for the different activities in the club.
“The youth centre opened in September 1972 with a compliment of four full-time paid staff. This was a very difficult time in this area. The old Boys’ Club in Beechwood was given to the scout movement, which thrived during the 70s, 80s and 90s. Attendance fluctuated as parents became more cautious in the 70s and 80s, depending on what was happening in the area. Also, youth work tended to be viewed by people at the time as a way of simply keeping young people off the streets. But it did much more than that by providing a place of safety for the young people where they could socialise and take part in activities.
“The work continues to develop and expand and the links are well-established to develop the work, come what may. Much credit it due to the hard work of our former Leader in Charge, Stevie Mallet. Credit must also be given to the management committee at that time, for their foresight and support of the work of the centre.
“We deeply appreciate the funding, which has come from the Department of Education that facilitated the new build and the team that met regularly to review the construction as it proceeded.
“I would also like to acknowledge the work of the many volunteers over the years, from the beginning. Also, the local Council and the Education Authority, who have all supported this club in one way or another in the last 50 years.”
Stevie Mallet said: “I grew up here and I attended this youth club when I was a child. Many of the things I see the young people do today, we were doing when we were young in the 70s and 80s. For us, it wasn’t always that easy. It was a difficult time for us growing up here in the 80s. I often think of that film Angela’s Ashes, where it’s constantly raining. In my eyes, we were constantly being raided. The raids would always happen at 4 in the morning so we didn’t go to school. Education wasn’t a priority for us.
“We had the club and we had the scouts and we had all the other wee institutions. I remember watching a documentary with Mary Nelis in it, the mother of Donncha Mac Niallais, who we lost recently, where she said she was very excited to get a house in Creggan. She said, though, that she quickly realised that it was just a ‘wilderness of houses’. There was nothing else here. All the things that were set up in the 70s were set up by the community.
“The Department for Education and the church came on board to help us build this but, at the time and right through to the 90s, the Department for Education used to make us raise 40% of the money before they would grant us funding. So the people of Creggan paid almost half of the money needed to build this club. Our mothers and fathers were out raising money and putting money into this when they had nothing already. This is our place and it has always been our place. It’s in my DNA.
“It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always plain sailing. We had to do our best in tough times. The club went through difficult periods too. We had to shut down for a while and a lot of us young people became a bit jaded. Education was bad, there wasn’t any jobs, there was very little for us in terms of opportunities and quite a few of us jumped ship to England. There was a huge culture shock going over there with people getting jobs and having opportunities. There was boys getting jobs in the Post Office that they would never have at home.
“I remember coming back in 1991, I was away for three years and I had come back for the funeral of another friend we had lost. I was greeted by Kathleen Doherty who said they needed help in the club. We ran the scouts out of the youth club for a number of years and that benefited the community greatly. At the same time, we were having difficulties with the building and we ended up getting shut down for two years.
“When it got shut down, the young people had nothing to do. This is a warning to everyone that youth work is so vital to a community. The young people imploded a bit and things got bad. It’s vitally important that we continue to invest in this.
“We tried to maintain some semblance of youth provision while the club was closed. Fortunately, they managed to get money for a refurb of the building and we spent a year trying to do that. The first time I was employed by St Mary’s Youth Club was in 92 or 93, we were off with a group to Ocean Youth Clubs. We were stuck on a boat that none of us had ever been on for over a week. For the next year, we ran camps and whatever we could do until the club would reopen again and then in 1994 to 96, we had a really tumultuous time because a lot of the young people hadn’t been in the youth club and they were being accused of doing bad things and we were really trying our hardest to get those kids who were in most need back into the club. It took its toll. We lost staff, staff couldn’t cope. It was a really difficult time and that was all born out of the club shutting down for two years.
“Kathleen Doherty came to me in 1996 and said that we had just lost our Leader in Charge. She asked me to look after the place for a month. That was back in ‘96. That month turned into two months, which turned into six months, which turned into a year, then two years. I had no education or academic ability at all and she had my heart broke to go back to school. She supported me the whole way. She’s been the stalwart for this organisation and this community.
“We got together at the start of the naughties with participatory groups and young people and John Lynch was one of the first involved. The first thing he said was ‘we want a new building’. We had been running around catching mice, fixing leaks and putting radiators back on walls. For us, that became our driving force. We applied to the Department of Education for a grant and eventually they gave us £250,000 to fix the roof. We applied again and they allowed us to do an economic appraisal. That was hard fought. We fought some more and eventually we ended up getting £3.3 million.
“We started that process around 2002, we got an agreement for a new build in 2012 and it has taken us this time to build this and negotiate the building that we wanted and we’re sill not finished.
“One of the things that the staff here keep saying to ourselves is ‘how do we create pathways for our young people?’ One of the first things we had to stop doing was criminalitising young people. We ended up sitting down with the police and coming up with the idea for Discretionary Disposals, where the police come to us before taking young people to court and we try set them back on track before the police come back three months later. That works. It went from us in the 90s going to court three or four times a week to rarely being there now.
“We have young people come through here and go off to do a variety of things; teachers, probation officers, social workers, business entrepreneurs. But most importantly, what we’ve managed to cultivate is a youth leader population within the city. You would be hard pressed to go to a youth organisation without a member of staff that hasn’t been through this organisation at some stage.”
Minister Michelle McIlveen then unveiled the new plaque for the opening of the centre, which will serve the youth of Creggan for many more years to come.