Battling for Connection

Friday, July 10, 2020

When lockdown began, a group of young men contacted north Belfast youth worker Sean Madden. Anxieties were heightened, they were feeling uncertainty, cut off from friends & some of them had been furloughed. They were reaching out, looking for connection…

Sean, who works for Youth Action & is a youth worker at Holy Family Youth Club on the Limestone Road, was passionate about plugging the gaps that lockdown had thrown up.

“The young guys wanted a bit of meaning,” he said. “Some of them were out of work, some of them were conscious about their drinking & they were just dealing with fear & uncertainty.”

“They were definitely a focus for us,” Sean reflects. “We’ve been working with them a while, had them away on international trips & were happy with how they had been getting on. Then suddenly we were worried about their support networks, we knew they needed additional support.”

The youth workers were able to support some of them in applying for universal credit & relief funds. Beyond the practicalities, the youth club also came up with some creative responses – setting up a playstation account that kept the teenager connected until, according to Sean, “they hit a digital wall”. Socially distanced walks & bike rides also came into play, as well as connecting some of the guys to a personal trainer. In the later stages of lockdown they were able to re-introduce their bike fixing workshops, which have proved popular.

“At the start,” Sean says, “it was about checking in with everyone on their mental health. Young people were shocked & afraid, because much of what they were consuming online was the worst-case scenario.”

“Also, it was scary for them to suddenly be at home all the time.”

In response to this reality, youth volunteers reconfigured activities online, but Sean admits this brought challenges in trying to support young people who didn’t have good access to internet.

To add complexity to the lockdown situation, interface tensions were rising to the surface in north Belfast.

“It’s tough,” Sean reflects, “because some of the young people’s alternatives have been taken away and there are gaps. We’ve seen face to face fighting in Alexandra Park & we were in the middle of it, trying to stop it.” With funding challenges a continued issue for the youth sector – most of those out intervening when tension flares have been volunteers.

But Sean says what kept him going is his passion for north Belfast & its young people.

“I have a real affinity for north Belfast & I can see myself in those young guys. The only alternative I had growing up was youth work or sport. I have mates who are in jail or who are dead now & someone helped me choose the right path. So I know what route these guys could take & they know we’re not bullshitting them. They see genuineness from us. And these young men have been brilliant to us.”

For Sean, it’s been a testing time in this part of the city but he says it’s fired his passion for youth work & magnified just how crucial it is in Belfast.

“Youth work is about face to face & that needs to be kept on the agenda; there is genuinely no replacement for that. We have had some successes online, but fundamentally we need to get back to being with young people in person.”

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