A youth programme which she wrote on her kitchen table has not only won a socially-conscious young woman a prestigious award but has been rolled out in Cork and Waterford and is currently being established in Dublin.
UCC graduate Aoife Whitford, who has been working as Project Manager with the Le Chéile Mentoring and Youth Justice Support Services, won the Vodafone Ireland Foundation’s World of Difference Programme 2013 for her initiative, which she spent a year developing.
The aim — to encourage young people to explore significant social issues on their own doorsteps.
The World of Difference programme offers four people the opportunity to work for a youth charity of their choice for one year with a €40,000 salary paid for by the Foundation.
The 28-year-old from the Cork suburb of Montenotte won her award for designing Le Chéile’s innovative and highly successful Empowering Youth Programme.
She developed the scheme in a bid to encourage young people who are involved with the probation services, to look more closely at social problems like homelessness, animal cruelty, drug-taking and teenage binge-drinking in their own communities.
It’s the second time Aoife has won the World of Difference programme — she won the award in 2012 for an employee charity-engagement project she developed while working with Young Social Innovators.
As part of the World of Difference programme Aoife has been working as a Project Manager with Le Chéile since November 2013. Her Empowering Youth Programme, which was piloted for Le Chéile in Cork before being rolled out to Waterford, is being implemented in Dublin since the end of last month.
Le Chéile was established in 2005 to provide a mentoring service to children and young people involved with the Young Person’s Probation service. The organisation also provides a mentoring service for the parents of these young people. Aoife’s Empowering Youth project, which she created in July 2013 came, she says from her experience working as a volunteer mentor with Le Chéile as far back as 2008.
Young people referred to the organisation may have chaotic family backgrounds, suffer from low self-esteem, be early school leavers and may not be in the formal education system.
The Le Chéile service consists of eight modules, delivered by community-based volunteers during mentoring sessions which take place once a week for up to three hours at a time in public libraries, youth centres and internet cafés.
Once their project has been completed, participants are supported through the next steps in volunteering, education, employment or training.
As a volunteer mentor, Aoife worked with a number of teenagers, and her experiences inspired her to create the Empowering Youth initiative: “I noticed that at times, the young people seemed to have a difficulty knowing what they were good at.
“They were looking for guidance, but as a mentor, you’re supposed to step back and let them make their own decisions.
“I got the idea to create a programme which would add fun and focus to the mentoring sessions.” She sketched out a plan at her kitchen table and spent a year developing it. As part of her research she spoke to young people, to the probation service, to Le Chéile staff and to members of the Garda Síochána.
Under the scheme, participants explore social issues in their communities through research on the internet, reading newspapers, and listening to the media.
“They then pick an issue such as animal cruelty, drug abuse or teenage binge- drinking and do a project on it.
“They are supported by their adult mentor all the way through, They will work on the project for between 13 and 20 weeks.
“They meet with the mentor once a week and do the project.”
Some of these young people may be vulnerable and suffer from low self-esteem, or be forced to deal with a lot of chaos in their lives, or with problems like addiction or literacy issues, so the successful completion of the project is a huge achievement, she says.
To date, Aoife has trained nine Empowering Youth Programme mentors in Cork and five in Waterford: “We have started rolling out the programme in Dublin, where we are planning to train 11 mentors. We have had a great engagement in terms of young people participating in the programme.
“It has been quite successful in that we managed to change attitudes toward doing something positive in their community,” she says, pointing to one teenager who picked the topic of institutional child abuse: “She compiled a strong portfolio of research which she is currently submitting as part of a college application.
“The young people learn skills such as team-work, communication skills, listening skills and research skills — and they realise that things they may have taken for granted in their communities such as homelessness or animal cruelty are actually social problems.
“It’s about seeing things in a different way and changing their perspective — we encourage them to come up with solutions to the problems they see around them.
“It is the first step in their journey towards further employment, education or training.”