How a knock at the door sparked a lifelong career in youth work

Aileen Mellon, youth coordinaror of Galliagh’s ‘Off the Streets ‘youth initiative told the Journal how a knock at the door from the organisation 20 years ago, inspired a career in youth work.

Growing up in Galliagh, she was frustrated by the lack of services in the area. As a proactive ten-year-old she made a decision to reach out to a local residents group, a decision that has shaped her life.

Aileen told the Journal, “I grew up in Moss Park in a big family of five brothers and sisters. We were always on the streets playing, being told off by neighbours for hanging about. I’d had enough. So I approached Galliagh’s Residents Centre and asked if there anything we could do.

“That night ‘Off the Streets’ came knocking at the door asking for me. And I suppose the rest is history because 20 years later here I am a qualified youth worker still involved with that very organisation.”

Championing Off the Streets for keeping her family out of trouble and taking the time to engage with them, Aileen said their support had a huge impact on her formative years. “Being from a big family meant I always had to shout louder than everyone else to be heard. The youth workers were a source of support that was always there when I needed it.

She continued, “The words role model to me meant ‘Off the Streets’ youth workers. I knew being a role model wasn’t about never making a mistake; it was the person you looked up to, respected and aspired to be. I decided to become a youth worker, to provide that same support and make a difference within my community.”

Aileen’s involvement in the organisation steered her school subjects and career going forward, with Off the Streets by her side every step of the way. She commented, “They kept me on the right track particularly around the age of 16, when I was too wee to go out but too big to be seen as a child. I was given the opportunity to volunteer as a mentor with the next generation of children coming through the scheme.”

“Off the Streets was a gateway, that gave me and my siblings a wealth of opportunities we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I will always be thankful for that.”

Going from strength to strength, the initiative remains committed to building positive relationships with young people, expanding their reach through youth-led fun days and mentoring programs which makes young people the drivers of their own future. So how has Off the Streets approach changed over the last 20 years? For Aileen it’s the pro-activeness of the team.

“We no longer wait on young people to come knocking at our door. We’re on the streets six days a week, engaging with them. Technically, I took up an office job but I don’t spend much time behind the desk. And I wouldn’t want to change that.

“We’ve adapted a very open and loose structure to meet their needs. It’s simply a matter of saying we have the time for you, what do you need us to do and how can we support you?”

Providing around the clock support, Aileen and the Off the Streets team are a foundation young people can rely on. Still living in Galliagh with a young family of her own, Aileen’s admirable dedication means she is always on call,.

She assured, “We don’t wait for things to happen, we’re a phone-call away or a few doors down to be that listening ear when needed. Kids don’t always talk to their parents but know they can confide in us.”

Offering everything from respite fun-days for young carers to helping kids prepare for exams, Off the streets are there when young people need them most.

Aileen continued,”We’re not about telling young people what to do, instead we advise and open the doors of opportunity for those who want to avail of them.”

With a brighter future in the pipeline for Galliagh, a £1.4m Community Hub which recently received a green light from planners, is a move which holds great meaning for Aileen.

“It’s been a long time coming and a very personal journey for me. I remember as a child, banging on the doors of council to ask for a community building in Galliagh.

“ I was 12 at the time and with the help of my brothers we made a petition, going door to door on our street. We thought signatures from a few neighbours would be enough.”

For Aileen that journey has now come full circle, “We’re still banging on council doors but they’ve let us in this time to be heard.”

She concluded, “We’ve worked hard to get to this stage and I’m so proud of everyone involved. I’m excited for the future of Galliagh. Onwards and upwards.”