Áilín Quinlan speaks to Amanda Flanagan, a volunteer with Aware, about setting up an after-school club to promote positive mental health.
Becoming a volunteer with AWARE, the depression support group, had significant benefits for Amanda Flanagan — it increased her self-confidence and provided her with the skills to discuss mental health with children and adults.
However, there was more — it also empowered the mother-of-two to co-found a successful club at her local primary school which promoted the skills of positive mental health:
“I have an interest in mental health and I’ve always had a very positive outlook - and I wanted my children to see me doing something for others, so I decided to volunteer for Aware,” says the former HR trainer (43), now a full-time mum to Tom (14) and James (12).
“I’ve always had a passion for empowering people and I wanted to show my sons that I do things for others - and that this is what life is about.
“I saw an ad on Twitter for Aware volunteers,” she recalls. Amanda applied online, did an interview and began what turned out to be ongoing training: “I now work on the support line for one three-hour shift a week, and deal with people from every background who are looking for support in relation to their mental health and education, and information about their mental health.
“I didn’t realise that it would train or empower me so much,” recalls Amanda, from Dublin’s Navan Road, who became an Aware volunteer in February 2016.
“I have learned so much about mental health.”
On top of that, Amanda says, after joining Aware, she discovered that many mental health-related issues seem to be rooted in childhood; a time when some children cannot express themselves or talk about their feelings and emotions.
About a year after she began work as a volunteer with Aware, Amanda and a school-teacher friend, Niamh Brennan, who works at the St John Bosco’s Senior Boys Primary School on Dublin’s Navan Road, decided to set up an after-school club to promote the skills of positive mental health in pupils.
Niamh had worked as a primary school teacher in Britain for several years before returning to Ireland two years ago.
More specifically, Niamh had worked in disadvantaged areas of the UK, where part of the curriculum involved the teaching of mindfulness and the nurturing of children’s emotional needs. Amanda, whose sons attended St John Bosco’s, instinctively felt Niamh’s skills were relevant to Ireland.
“As a mother, I felt that boys in particular are not always great at looking after their emotional needs.
“I also think many Irish men don’t always have the coping skills to deal with the emotional challenges of life,” recalls Amanda.
With the blessing of headmaster Emmanuel Bourke, Amanda and Niamh established the Wellbeing Warriors after-school club at the school in January 2017.
The club’s first six-week programme was such a success that the duo is currently running their eighth Wellbeing Warriors Club.
“To date, we’ve worked with third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes,” explains Amanda, whose sons attended the club, which is optional and generally has between 12 and 15 members.
“We give children the skills to be aware of their own feelings and emotions and to practise talking about them in a safe group environment,” she explains.
“It’s about developing life-skills and resilience and self-confidence.”
Niamh now also trains other primary teachers in the Wellbeing Warriors programme and is very pleased with the results of the club.
Anxiety is a major issue at primary school level, says school principal Emmanuel Bourke.
The fact that Niamh had trained in supporting children’s positive mental health and enabling them to talk about their emotions, strongly appealed to him.
“I could see the need for something like that and I have to say we have not looked back.
“I’ve seen how the children who got involved have grown,” he says, adding that he has noticed a “natural pick-up” in pupils who have attended Wellbeing Warriors.
“In school, we can see the way the impact on the child - they are more relaxed and better able to focus.”
And, reports Amanda, it all comes back to her work with Aware.
“It was as a result of my work in Aware that I had the confidence to co-found Wellbeing Warriors,” she says. Last September she walked the Camino de Santiago, raising €5,00 for the organisation:
“The amount I’ve gotten back as a result of volunteering with Aware is huge. I would recommend to people that they give it a go - when you volunteer for Aware you learn more about yourself and you give yourself mental health skills.
“Joining Aware, as a volunteer, has really enhanced my life.”