'I wanted to write the book I needed when I was 14': Tammy Darcy has got this

As founder of The Shona Project, Tammy Darcy has helped over 13k teenage girls across Ireland. She talks to Martha Brennan about the inspiration behind her new book and plans for the coming months
'I wanted to write the book I needed when I was 14': Tammy Darcy has got this

Tammy Darcy doesn’t have an ego. She finds a need to say this aloud, though it’s evident from the second she picks up the phone from her home in Waterford.

The mother-of-three has dedicated her life to helping teenage girls realise their rightful place in the world through her non-profit organisation The Shona Project. While the rest of us were comparing banana bread recipes this time last year, she was busy writing a new book for struggling teens.

“What I wanted to do was to write the book that I needed when I was 14. I just thought back over all the conversations and interactions I’ve had with girls, the things they struggle with and the questions that they have, and basically just answer those as best as I could and give them a resource for when they’re struggling,” she says.

A sister act

Tammy founded The Shona Project in 2016, having been inspired by her own experiences as a teenage girl, where she went through an early age trauma that led to what she often describes as some “bad decisions” later on. The name of the organisation has a very special place in Tammy’s heart.

“Shona is my sister. There's a year between us, so we grew up very close. When I was 14 she started to struggle and show symptoms, her memory and balance and concentration, and she was diagnosed with an acquired brain injury. They gave her six months to live. She had surgery and survived but she doesn't really have any quality of life. She’s in a nursing home which is over a two-hour drive from where we live and we haven’t seen her in a year because of Covid,” Tammy says.

“The Shona Project for me is a way of making sure that her life has meaning and that people know who she is. It’s a lovely tribute to all the potential she had because she was such an amazing young person.

“From my own perspective, when all of that was going on nobody really checked in with me or explained to me that this wasn’t a normal experience. What I’ve come to realise as an older person is that you can experience grief from somebody who hasn’t passed away. I don’t think that’s recognised enough. So many young people are grieving friendships, or opportunities, or parents who have left the home. That’s all a form of grief and loss and sadness that we need more support around.” 

In the five years since the project’s inception, Tammy has given talks to over 13k teenage girls in schools across the country. She’s won awards, built a team of volunteers, created an online support community, and been named as one of the Irish Examiner’s 100 women of 2021 along with her friend Vicky Phelan — whom she shared an office with for eight years. Yet still, no ego.

Creating a community

“I go in and tell my own story and just try to encourage them to challenge their assumptions about what it means to be a woman. A lot of the messages we get from society, even in the last few weeks if you look at the Meghan [Markle] interview, is that women need to be in competition together and that's not the case. What we’ve done is create a community of amazing women of all ages — from 16 to 70 — who all just want to make the world a better place and want to make people feel good about themselves and want to use our own negative experiences in a positive way,” she says.

The project has been growing every year, with Tammy even getting to meet with the Duchess of Sussex, the aforementioned Megan Markle, when she visited Ireland in 2018. Not even a pandemic could stop the team, who are celebrating the success of their virtual Shine Festival — a free event that took place earlier this month and featured talks from over 100 inspirational women. Before the event took place, Tammy had 40,000 girls registered to attend. As we’re speaking, she gets the news that online views have just passed the 1m mark.

“These girls need us more than ever. We can’t go into schools. We can see they’re so stressed and isolated and anxious. So many of them don't have access to the supports and friends they would have leaned on in the past, so we thought: ‘Right we need to do something big. We need to give them somewhere to go where they feel safe’. Between that and the book, I hope there will be resources going forward for them.” 

Tammy’s favourite part of the new book, You’ve Got This, are the additions by teen ambassadors who wrote about things she hasn’t experienced herself, for example dealing with sexuality.

“I’m 41-years-old and as far as a 16-year-old is concerned that is ancient,” she says, laughing. “I’ve met these amazing girls and wanted to pull them in and be guided by them. I genuinely believe that people sharing their own stories is so much more powerful than statistics. I certainly know for myself as a teenager, I couldn't even identify what was wrong. I couldn't identify why I felt the way I felt.” 

On top of grieving for her sister, Tammy also dealt with bullying and her parents separating while she was in secondary school. She moved out of home when she was 16 and had her first son at 19-years-old.

“It was going on for so long but nobody validated that it was normal and expected for me to be struggling and that my confidence would have been knocked. That was never discussed with me, so I didn’t have the language to express what I was feeling. I hope young girls who read this book might think: ‘That’s exactly what’s going on with me’ and maybe then they can talk to someone about it,” she says.

Tammy went on to earn a degree in human resources management, followed by an MA in business management, and is currently studying an MA in education.

“Young girls get messages that they’re valued for how they look, or how popular they are, or how many followers they have on Instagram and the message I want to get across is that they deserve to be seen and heard. I think for a lot of us, when you go through a hard time you just want to make yourself invisible,” she says.

'Surviving, not thriving'

“There are so many girls that are surviving but not thriving. I’d love for them all to know that no matter what life throws at them, or how people react to them, they’re still worthy and have so much to offer.” 

Tammy is counting down to the day when she can get back into schools doing what she loves and has a plan in the works to build an online system that can support girls online with low-cost therapy and mentoring.

“Schools keep telling us that when we work with the girls, they trust us and connect with us. A lot of these girls are on waiting lists for counselling and therapy and I think a lot of them just need someone to listen. It’s going to be a lot of work but everything we’ve achieved in the last five years has been achieved with one and a half staff members, it’s all volunteers, and that’s not sustainable. We need more funding. We’ve proved our worth and what we can do with very little, so I hope people will get behind us,” Tammy says.

She also hopes that as pupils return to classrooms, schools can come together to fight negativity amongst students.

“I think a great start...  would be for a collective agreement that they're going to take care of each other better and that they’re going to let go of any issues from the past and support each other, not judge each other, speak up for each other, and above all else not have this expectation of perfection from each other. Everyone should be allowed to make mistakes and ask for help. I’d love for every school, out loud as a group, to start out like that.” 

  • You’ve Got This (€11.99) by Tammy Darcy is out March 26 in bookstores across Ireland

Tammy Darcy's top rules for life

Be yourself 

As girls, we constantly compare ourselves to others and see what they have that we don’t. She might have beautiful long legs, but maybe you have beautiful eyes. She maybe more academic than you but maybe you have a creative side. Be kind to yourself.

Set goals

Big ones or small ones, it doesn’t matter, but setting goals for yourself helps you to focus and stops you from being distracted by negative things around you.

Decide what success means to you

For me, success is creating a positive impact in the world. Nothing will ever be as fulfilling as that.

Not everyone will like you

Some people like chocolate chip ice-cream, some people like passionfruit. There’s nothing wrong with either of them, it's just a matter of taste. Don’t water yourself down to try to please people.

Take care of your mental health

Your mind is the same as the rest of your body in that it needs food, exercise, and rest. If you feel your head starts to spin, take five minutes, go somewhere quiet, and just breathe. Make smart choices about what you spend your time doing and who with. If it has a negative effect on your mental health, limit it or cut it out altogether.

Keep an open mind and heart

Challenge the assumptions you have and never accept that your role is already defined. Mix things up a little bit. Don’t rush to argue with others, listen to and understand their point of view. Listen more than you speak, and ask 100 questions a day. 

When I was younger I got very badly hurt. As a result, I shut myself off from other people and missed out for many years before I learned started to open myself up again. Protect your heart but don’t close it completely. You will get hurt, that’s part of life and it sucks. But you will also be loved, and it is so worth it. 

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