COMMUNITY IN FOCUS: On Street putting needs and skills of youth front and centre in our community
With their eye-catching red jackets, its teams have long been a familiar sight on the streets of Galliagh, and in more recent times across the wider Ballyarnett region and in the city centre.
This ‘on the streets’ activity has continued for over 20 years and in that time the organisation has evolved and expanded in partnership with local children and young people, while staying true to its core ethos and grassroots. Over those years, the wellbeing, development and empowerment of young people to take their rightful place at the heart of their community and within On Street has remained its primary concern.
Originally named ‘Off the Streets’, On Street Community Youth was born out of local residents in Galliagh coming together in 1996 to deal with issues on the ground. Over the years it has developed into a project through which, as project manager Thomas McCallion and co-ordinator Aileen Mellon point out, young people can find their voice.
Back in the mid to late 90s, a wave of anti-social behaviour and car crime had plagued local people in Galliagh and they decided to do something about it. Aileen said: “The residents were approaching young people and the young people said, ‘well what do you want us to do?’, ‘where are we moving on to?’, ‘where can we go off the streets?’ and the residents really listened to that. There was a lack of any kind of provision in this area, it was really a community driven focus on getting provision for young people. I think back in 1996 it was maybe relevant to be called Off The Streets, but the young people have always challenged that, and while we remained Off The Streets we were part of that negative perception so we had to change to be more proactive in our messaging.”
Aileen herself joined as a 10-year-old participant, then became a volunteer at 16 and a staff member at 18. Over a decade later, her young son is now participating in the youth team, which promotes play and early intervention.
Speaking about how personal impact the project has had, she said: “I was never on a plane until I joined Off The Streets, I met people from all around the world. I never met someone with a different religion to me before Off The Streets. I received a wealth of knowledge, social skills and support.
“That was all based on going out of the area and going to different places but since then we have tried to provide that provision within the area. We know that taking people out of their comfort zone is great but we need to create a community foundation so that people can actually come together.
“We have evolved but we always did street work. Street support is our foundation whether we are there to placate, support, advocate, challenge, we take on all of that role when we go out, we don’t shy away. We are there to support young people.”
Changing perceptions of young people remains a challenge today, particularly as there is still episodes of anti-social activity in an area starved of resources, but On Street Community Youth have never accepted that any young person is a lost cause.
Twenty years, On Street still operates from an upstairs flat in Galliagh despite the growth of the organisation in terms of capacity and provision. In fact infrastructure remains an issue across the area.
Thomas has been involved in the community sector in other areas of Derry for over 20 years and joined On Street five years ago. “I had been working a lot on the Triax area, the Bogside and Brandywell and I think when you come from that experience to this experience, the lack of investment in infrastructure, within youth services in this area is glaringly obvious. There’s a disconnect between an area with the highest growing youth population in Derry and yet it is one of the least invested in areas in terms of youth provision. The role that On Street took on against a very tough social climate, I think, is why locally for residents, other community organisations, it has that level of respect.”
Thomas said he wishes that the project had been available when he was growing up in the Bogside in the 1980s. “I speak to my parents very often about the work we are involved in. My father is fascinated by the work we carried out and he goes back over the 60s and 70s and says how relevant it would have been then. And it is expanding - there are now other organisations taking on this model and developing and running with it but On Street has been the biggest champion of it and it really set its foundation in this community.
“It’s at their level, it’s on street corners, we speak to the young people with respect, and people know the red coats - it has a very strong significance for this community and I think it is a model that is being copied by others now because they see the strengths within it and a lot of credit has to go to the organisation, to people like Aileen who have been here for so long, who have pushed this agenda when it wasn’t there in the rest of the city, and rightly so because the model is about engagement, supporting young people, supporting community.”
Through On Street, many young people have become an integral part of their community through volunteering and good deeds and connecting with residents, including older residents and younger children.
While it has no core funder, On Street today runs a wide range of programmes with support from various bodies. Among those is One to One Mentoring, which has continued throughout the COVID period. “How we differ from other services is that the young people refer themselves. There is no paperwork, there is no big long waiting lists. The mentoring can be anything from going for a jog to positive wellbeing and goal setting,” Aileen said.
There is also a younger children’s programme from ages 5 to 11 which takes the form of an introduction of play and how you start to form group work, social skills and resiliency.
The Empower project for 12-16 year olds takes this further, through building skills and confidence so the young people can go out in front of the organisation and speak for themselves.
The Lead project for those aged 16 plus involves young people taking an active role and volunteering. On Street also runs a Health and Wealth programme - providing ‘meals, miles and mind’ - supplying five meals a week while participants who take on five miles exercise and a mind activity each week, while checking in with their key support worker.
On Street has also set up the cross-border Culmore & Muff Youth Matters group, commissioned by Derry & Strabane and Donegal County Councils, which has proved a great success.
The National Lottery was one of the first outside bodies to recognise the huge amount of good work going on and has been a key backer since 2008. Thomas said: “We are an organisation that runs with no core funding. We have had a very successful approach to a number of funders. National Lottery have been a massive advocate seeing the services we provide in the community. We have got Derry City & Strabane District Council, Departments of Education and Justice, the Education Authority, the Community Foundation and without their support we can’t run these programmes.”
Then two years ago the City Centre Scheme began. “At the start we were a Galliagh based organisation,” Aileen said. “Now we cover Ballyarnett with not much more funding but where there is a will there is a way so we do it. We have the city centre staff who over the last two years have gone to the city centre, the Peace Bridge and St Columb’s Park and provided On Street support. There is no recruitment or anything, just support where they need it there and then, be it a listening ear, sign positing.” Aileen said Thomas was instrumental in getting this vital service up and running. She adds: “Our young people were getting the bus and we could be chatting to them at the bus stop but they could be more vulnerable or at risk up the town and we couldn’t do anything about it, so having a ity centre team has really helped us and really linked in because they could have let us know for example if someone was coming down on the bus and looked a bit upset.”
Like community-based organisations across the north west, On Street had to adapt quickly as COVID arrived. Aileen said: “We continued the check in service with all families - there’s 92 active families and there’s 400 on our register from the past few years - so we divided that 400 up between our staff members and we did a weekly check in with family members by phone until the families were ready enough to let that service go. We also did age appropriate play packs for all age groups based around garden play - sticky bats with balls, outdoor Connect 4 things etc. We did over 200 packs in the first lockdown and 800 out since.
“We have also branched out and worked alongside the Galliagh Residents Association (GRA) and we did two rounds of older people’s packs. That was great for us, being able to go to the bungalows throughout the area. We had conversations at the door and realised there’s a lot of people living alone who are older.
“We used the GRA building throughout the pandemic, getting the packs and food ready, Christmas packs, the Santa event. We would have used that beforehand for the drop in for young people every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night which was going really well until COVID hit. That is one of the most important things we need back but can’t do at the minute.”
On Street has also been working alongside Skeoge Community Hub and had a special thank you for St Paul’s Primary School (Slievemore) who gave over their playground in the summer. “They have been a great champion for us for a long time,” Thomas said, adding: “Community is within the organisation’s title and we just can’t work in isolation with young people. Their families are very much part of this community and the more buy in we have from parents, carers and grandparents it just adds to the whole social capital that you are able to build within a community.
“We have very strong partnerships and we are big champions of working with other people and the needs here in this community - it has been under-resourced and it is a brilliant community but they deserve and require a lot more than what its there, and my role and Aileen’s role is to keep pushing at that door.”
Recently On Street also installed recognition boards with positive messages around the area to keep spirits up.
In terms of the impact On Street has had on young people on an individual level, Thomas and Aileen said the growth in confidence and social skills has been life-changing for many children. Aileen cites how one youth joined but kept to himself for a long time. “At tea times we would provide hot food. This one young person wouldn’t eat. We didn’t know until later he was keeping it to share with his siblings. He was there five minutes early, he was the last to leave but he didn’t speak for about two months of the programme. Being able to address the other young people about inclusion, helping your peers, the young people themselves were able to ensure over time that he really came out of himself. We had given the other young people those tools to include him. Seeing them with those skills to encourage that was really nice to see. At our Participation Recognition events where we take all our active participants he came up and spoke which was amazing.”
Thomas said seeing the On Street relationship with local young people is amazing. “I would challenge anybody to go out and see it with the street team - the warmth and affection that comes from the young people because they know the organisation, and that the staff are there to support them. Not everything is rosey but you see the level of respect for the staff that is there and if they do wobble they know they can turn to us and that support is there, and I’d like to think as a father of two children if my child ever needed that at some point that that support would be there because there but for the grace of God... we don’t know what circumstances we are going to face in our lives.”
Plans are well developed for the coming months. Aileen said: “We have upped our street work, we have upped our mentoring from 30 per year to 50 per year so we are ready and waiting for that more one to one needed approach. Trying to implement social skills again will be a big thing, building coping skills. We know and we have heard from our one to ones the exploitation of young people online is a big fear factor and online bullying, so we will be planning for that.
“We will continue no matter what, restrictions included, so that we are able to provide street and one to one support because we do believe that is essential and that taking that away is taking away a lifeline to those young people. We are looking forward to restrictions easing a bit so we are not there just when it comes to intervention work, we would rather be there before it. That has always been our focus.”
On Street is also developing a Transition programme for children who will effectively be going from Primary 6 to secondary school due to the disruption of the past year. There is also a Summer scheme planned, with outdoor play equipment “to bring it back to basics a wee bit, like sports days years ago”, making use of the green spaces across the Galliagh area.
Looking to the future, Thomas adds: “The community sector really stood up during COVID. It brought in resources, supported the community at a level others maybe couldn’t.
“I think hopefully that is going to be one of the big legacies, that we get back to a sense of what community is, about helping each other, supporting each other, no matter what it is or what you have that you share it and you are there to support each other.
“We both knocked on doors and seen the delight of someone who maybe hadn’t any seen anyone for weeks. I hope we don’t lose that lesson and support each other and be prepared to listen to the community. We all have a role to play - we are one part of that whole big cog.”