George McGowan has hit the ground running since taking over the reins from Seamus Heaney as director at the Creggan-based Old Library Trust Health Living Centre.
Mr McGowan said he was delighted to be appointed to lead the project and wanted to continue to develop the groundbreaking projects already underway and promote an open door policy for all.
As someone from the Triax area himself and having family across the Creggan, Bogside/Brandywell areas, Mr McGowan said he, himself, had a “big affinity with the area”.
The Old Library Trust (OLT) was established in July 2001 to deliver programmes and services that improve the social, physical and mental health and wellbeing of residents living in the Creggan area. Today, between 1,500 and 2,000 people come through the doors of the OLT Healthy Living Centre at Central Drive each week.
Mr McGowan got his first taste of working in the community sector on work placement with the then Derry City Council’s Sports Development department while studying for a degree in Physical Education at St Mary’s College, Belfast.
“I worked with their Community Development Officer for the Triax area for two weeks so that gave me an insight,” he said. “The department was working on a lot of programmes on health and wellbeing at that time.
“I am from the Brandywell originally (the wee flat above Manus McCaul’s shop) so it was good for me to get an insight into what was happening with all the community organisations in the area.”
That work experience in the heart of the community was to be a deciding factor in Mr McGowan’s career trajectory. He initiated his own voluntary exercise classes at the Old Library Trust, Long Tower Youth Club and Pilot’s Row.
“When I finished my degree at St Mary’s, a post came up here and it was the first round of Sport NI’s Sport in Community Fund and it was a three-year project all about using sport as a tool to address health and well being and mental health - more with under-represented groups. I applied for the job and I got it. I was here for around three and a half years.”
He then secured a post with the Council to manage the NW Peace III Social Inclusion and Cohesion project over an 18-month period. This involved using sport to deal with issues such as sectarianism and racism across Derry, Omagh, Strabane and Donegal and training local coaches.
“We did an initiative across 50 schools where they looked at things like history, geography and maths through the Olympic Games and I designed all that with the teachers. It all culminated in 1,800 pupils taking part in a festival at The Aura in Letterkenny.”
Mr McGowan said that, while he liked working with the Council, he missed the grassroots contact. As luck would have it, OLT had applied for money for the delivery of a childhood obesity prevention and management programme, known as SWEET (Safe Wellbeing Eating Exercise Together), which has now been running for seven years. It was the perfect fit for his own passion. He secured a role co-ordinating the project and it proved to be a great success.
During his time with this project, and more recently as programme planner with OLT, Mr McGowan worked under Seamus Heaney. Paying tribute to his predecessor, he said: “I can see the work, commitment and effort he put in to help regenerate the area. I suppose I wanted to be part of that and I was part of it.”
As his roles with the OLT developed, he has become more involved in partnership work with other organisations locally and across the north dedicated to developing and delivering community-based projects.
And Mr McGowan has focused on his own personal development as well, with the qualified fitness instructor gaining experience and qualifications in nutrition, play, working with people with long term conditions, mental health and childhood obesity.
In 2016, he spotted an opportunity to undertake an Advanced Diploma in Sustainability in The Third Sector at Ulster University, ahead of applying for the OLT director job after Seamus Heaney announced he was retiring.
Having secured the post, Mr McGowan is now keen to build on the successful programmes and partnership work, and is keen to get the message out there that the centre is open to all.
“Coming through the door for the first time can be scary and I want to try to improve that. Staff are getting involved in that, too. We are going to be going door knocking and developing a newsletter. We are going to be asking people what it is they want and need help with.
“I want to make sure the staff are happy, I’m a big believer if you have a happy workforce and the communication channels are clear and open, then, in terms of what we deliver out in the community, that openness and communication translates.
“We’re also a member of the Healthy Living Alliance, which is 22 organisations across the north, and that is something I want to focus my efforts on, too,” Mr McGowan said.
Among the numerous projects OLT is involved in delivering is a regional ‘social prescribing’ project, and another, funded by the Big Lottery, focusing on ensuring people with dementia and their carers can live better and fuller lives within their community, which is being developed with other local urban and rural areas.
OLT offers older people social activities such as bingo, luncheon club and line dancing, with a £1 women’s walking group, and a free health programme for men over 55.
Another element is tackling obesity and prevention, including with children, while ‘Exercise for All’ offers fitness classes at reduced rates or free if funding can be secured. There is also the Family First Hub for families in crisis, while people with long-term conditions such as diabetes, cardiac disease, mental stress/anxiety or arthritis can also get help. “If they are referred here either by their self or a GP, we do our best to give them one-to-one help or small group support,” Mr McGowan said.
OLT is piloting a programme with Children in Need on working with children with reduced time-tables in both post primary and primary school/transition to improve wellbeing and educational needs. In the New Year, it will be involved in a major project focusing on mental health in the Triax area.
Mr McGowan said challenges remain locally such as deprivation, cancer statistics and obesity. “We are chipping away at it but it’s a challenge to help address and overcome those issues. A lot of those are legacy issues,” he said, adding: “In terms of Creggan, the political situation between different groups is tender, and we are well aware of that. From my point of view, in the Old Library Trust we have been seen as relatively neutral and that’s the way I want it to stay.
“The door is open to everybody. I don’t care what your beliefs are. If your mother needs support because she is suffering from dementia, then we can help. It’s about the individuals presenting with particular issues and I would reach the hand out to everyone.”
*Photographs by Jim McCafferty Photography.