Zeminar is a 3-day summit designed to equip Generation Z with the coping skills to meet the many challenges life will throw at them, writes Clodagh Finn.
Two Olympic medal winners are among an impressive list of speakers who will address some 16,000 teenagers at next month’s Zeminar, the wellbeing and education movement for Generation Z.
Ronny Delany, gold medal winner at Melbourne in 1956, and Kenny Egan, silver medallist at Beijing in 2008, will tell 15 to 20-year-olds how they faced the difficulties of their own teenage years at a three-day summit designed to equip young people with coping strategies for the many challenges that life will throw at them.
In one of the frank and revealing talks that have come to define Zeminar, Kenny Egan will speak about how it took him 18 years to reach Olympic fame, but only two years to reach rock bottom through alcohol abuse.
Substance abuse, bullying, mental health, loneliness, exam pressure and homelessness are just some of the topics that will be discussed by speakers drawn from a wide range of backgrounds.
Deborah Somorin will shine a light on homelessness at a time when nearly 4,000 children are living in emergency accommodation in hotels, bed and breakfasts, and family hubs.
Somorin was homeless at 13, pregnant at 14 and a mother at 15, yet she went on to qualify as a chartered accountant. Now, aged 24, she is a senior associate at PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
She wants to remove the stigma associated with homelessness and encourage young people to be resilient.
Everyone, she says, has to face difficulties and challenges but there are ways to overcome them.
The Queen of Ireland, Panti Bliss, will talk about the difficulties of growing up gay in an Ireland that had little understanding — and less sympathy— for anybody who was different.
Panti, who became an accidental activist during the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum, hopes that young people won’t have to go through the same loneliness, confusion and self-doubt today.
While Zeminar addresses a number of serious issues, it is also focused on taking action by connecting young people to the supports available to them in what the organisers say is “Ireland’s largest and most inclusive youth gathering”.
Some 1,000 teachers, youth leaders and youth reach groups will join over 100 organisations to discuss mental and physical health, career choice, science and technology, music, activism, Irish culture and more.
Zeminar combines 50 speakers, 50 workshops and 120 interactive exhibits to open “a window into a young person’s life in Ireland today”.
It was founded three years ago by Damien Clarke who identified the need to give Generation Z essential life skills while he was volunteering with Foróige, the Dublin Samaritans, St John of God’s and studying for a PhD in Counselling Psychology.
He was joined by co-founder Ian Fitzpatrick, a father of three, in 2015, and both men have built Zeminar on a voluntary basis with long nights, busy weekends — and two old laptops.
Damien said: “It’s become Ireland’s first proper youth summit and celebrates all that is good about young people in Ireland today.
The best thing is the feedback from teachers, students and parents — it really makes an impact by helping young people find their tribe; opening up tough conversations and also having the organisations on site that can offer support.
Ian added: “We’ve also found that the people and organisations we have met along the way are just so remarkable in their everyday work.
"Zeminar has already been described by one speaker as the ‘Ploughing for youth wellbeing’ and while we know it’s not at that level, we do allow ourselves to finish that sentence with ‘yet’.”
Brian Pennie, former heroin addict who is now researching the neuroscience of mindfulness at Trinity College Dublin
“Drugs and gang violence were common place where I grew up in north west Dublin. I started drinking and taking drugs at a very young age.
"But if I’m honest, it was so normalised that I was completely unaware of the dangers and didn’t realise I was using drugs to escape from anxiety and fear.
"We are what we think, however, so if I had to pick the thing I found hardest as a teenager, it would be the burden of my own mind; the vehicle for my worry and fear.
“I’d give my 15-year-old self the same advice I give to my present-day self. Anything is possible.
"The only limits in your life are the ones you put on yourself, so dream big and be bold. I would also add: be true to your wonderfully weird self. You will attract what you need and repel what you don’t.
“My mission is to show people that change is possible, demonstrating actionable steps through a lived experience. Young people need these tools.
“I will be discussing my transformation from chronic heroin addiction to a person who is thriving as a writer, business owner, lecturer and PhD candidate in Trinity College Dublin.
“My message is to demonstrate what is possible, but I will focus on the foundations of what makes my life so wonderful today, which is increased energy and happiness through the power of present-moment awareness.
"I will also show how I did it by having fun, being bold and running my own race.”
Lauren Guilfoyle, physiotherapist, journalist and National GAA Youth Committee member
“The hardest thing I had to cope with as a teenager was figuring out my sense of identity.
"Fortunately, I had a brilliant support network of family and friends, a brilliant education and a cosy house to go home to in the evenings.
"What I struggled most with was figuring out who I really was. What I liked to do. What I didn’t like to do.
"A lot of my time as a teenager was spent trying to fit into social norms, putting myself in social situations because “this is what everyone does”, rather than having the desire to do things myself.
"I am so very, very, VERY glad social media wasn’t widely available when I was in school.
“I’d advise my 15-year-old self to just be me. Then my 15-year-old-self would reply, ‘But what happens if people don’t like you?’, and I’d laugh and say to myself that not everyone’s going to like me, but at least I like myself.
“I’m taking part in Zeminar because I want to help people.
"I’m not sure how good I’ll be at that, but if speaking from my own personal experiences can help even just one person, I’ll class it a success.
"I have been working with young people over the past few years given my heavy involvement with #GAAYouth and also with my role as physio to young GAA players.
"I think at this age group, we can offer them the tools to be better adults.
“I’m going to speak openly and honestly about the journey my mindset has taken from school, to college, to work life.
"I’ve figured out how to make myself happy, so I’d love to pass on some of these skills to the younger generation. I wish I didn’t have to wait ‘til age 22 to figure it all out myself!”
Jack Kavanagh, overcoming spinal cord injury and paralysis with optimistic realism
“Two things I really struggled with as a teenager were body image and the realisation that even my heroes were fundamentally human.
"I was always the skinny guy and being in a rugby school where there was a culture of macho masculinity, I found that a constant battle. Over time, I came to appreciate my body for all it could do.
“Following the spinal cord injury [in a windsurfing accident], I was thrown back to that place of real struggle with my body image and self-love was a big battle.
"Through my teenage years, I also experienced the tragic death of a number of heroes in my life and it brought home the fragility of life at quite a young age, which was an important factor in my desire to be transparent with the struggles I experience in life.
“I would have said to my 15-year-old self, ‘Jack, you are enough exactly as you are and attempting to be anyone else is doing both you and those around you a disservice.’
“So often in life we look outwardly for heroes, especially as we grow up and into ourselves, but I believe it’s so important to remind young people of the magic each and every one of them has within them.
“Zeminar is an incredible gathering of people and a perfect platform to deliver that message.
“The bravest thing any person can possibly do, despite the challenges they may face in life, is to bring their authentic selves to the world and that is when the magic will happen.”
Deborah Somorin, homeless at 13 and a mother at 15, she is now senior associate at PwC at age 24
“I grew up in State care and was homeless by 13, so that experience was hard. However, I had the same worries as every other teenager – the constant worry about not fitting in.
“I would say to my 15-year-old self, please stop worrying and caring about not being ‘normal’ and focus on being yourself.
“My favourite quote on this is from the Netflix hit show Stranger Things. Jonathan says to his little brother, 'Nobody normal ever accomplished anything meaningful in this world’.
“I’m taking part in Zeminar so I can help young people in a small way by giving this talk, particularly those attending with their schools who are currently living in homeless accommodation.
“I heard the story of a girl named Amanda on the radio last week where she talked about how homelessness is affecting her mental health while in secondary school. I was devastated listening to this.
“I understand the feeling of hopelessness. I want young people in that situation to understand there is light at the end of the tunnel, to seek help by talking to someone and find the strength to focus on their education.
“I’m really proud that my employers, PwC, will also be taking part in Zeminar.
“My talk is about resilience. Life is hard. Everyone has something they are dealing with, even people who appear to have perfect lives.
"We need to prepare young people for how to deal with this so that they can deal with stress and anxiety relating to exams or social pressures in a healthy way.”
Panti Bliss, gender discombobulist
“For me, the hardest thing I experienced as a teenager was discovering that I was gay; discovering that I was this thing that, at the time, I didn’t really understand and didn’t want to be.
"It was a difficult and lonely time.
“I would have told the 15-year-old me that I shouldn’t worry about, or stress over, the things that made me feel awkward and different and out-of-place, because over time those same things would become the very things that made me special and unique, and would become the things that I, and others, would come to value and cherish most about me.
“When I was a teenager, there were no role models for me to look to, or who looked like me.
“Gay people were seen only as the punchline to a joke, or trailed by canned laughter on TV.
"And seeing someone like me, who was older and happy and successful on their own terms, would have meant the world to me.
"It would have reassured me that I could be me, and still be worthy of respect.
“Be you – because there is no one else like you. You have abilities and talents that are unique to you, and they are valuable and important.
“You have a lot to offer and to contribute.”
Kenny Egan, Olympian, author and psychotherapist
“As a teenager I was really bad at finding a core group of friends. I struggled to fit in and this created anxiety and low self-worth.
"When I was a teenager, there were lots of emotions flushing around inside, and not having a solid friend base or someone close was quite tough.
"Also, there was always peer pressure and a struggle around alcohol consumption and drug experimentation.
“If I was 15 again, I would tell myself to stay in the here and now and not have high expectations of anyone.
"I would take my time growing up and install the belief that these years should be about having fun and gaining new experiences.
"I would tell myself to laugh as much as possible and be genuine and authentic with myself and to others.
“I want to share my story with people who might experience the same struggles I had growing up.
"People think of Olympians as super human and so powerful, but underneath we are human beings with emotions and feelings that can play havoc with us on a daily basis.
“There is a lot more to Kenneth Egan than just this Olympic silver medal.
“I will talk about my struggles growing up as a teenager in Clondalkin and also my boxing career.
“But not only the boxing success. I will talk about finding the courage to ask for help when I was at death’s door from alcohol abuse.
“It took me 18 years to reach the peak of my personal Everest, but only two years to hit rock bottom.
"The strong family unit I had was paramount to my recovery.”