John Lonergan, who spent 42 years in the prison service — 24 of those as the most senior prison officer in the country — will issue his call during a keynote address to a major national volunteering conference in Cork today organised by Foróige, Ireland’s leading youth organisation.
The social justice campaigner said he has seen a trend emerge in recent years which has seen more women than men get involved in youth development.
“There is nothing wrong with that. It’s not a criticism. Women bring a gentleness and tenderness to the role,” he said. “But men have something different to bring to the table. We need to re-balance. There are gaps that need to be filled.”
He said he has seen, particularly in socially disadvantaged areas, an absence of positive male role models.
“Some young people in disadvantaged areas, if they have any role models at all, they are negative role models,” he said.
“Children love to aspire to what their elders are doing. It’s why sports stars can have such a positive influence.
“We need to focus on and encourage more male participation in youth development.”
He also criticised a trend during the Celtic Tiger era where “we almost suffocated children with kindness”, and said youth leaders can teach children to become self-sufficient and responsible for their own actions and decisions.
Foróige works with 54,000 young people, through a network of more than 600 youth clubs and cafés nationwide.
Its national volunteer development manager, Denis O’Brien, said membership is split 50:50 between male and female.
“But our volunteers are about two thirds women to one third male,” he said. “We need more good men to help young boys grow up to become good men.”
Research has shown that if the matched relationship lasts for more than a year, there are measurable benefits to the younger person in areas such as improved school attendance and delayed substance abuse. “We find that an adult male who is willing to listen, to be supportive, to be a role model, makes a big difference in the life of the younger person,” Mr O’Brien said.
More than 200 people from around the country are expected to attend the ‘Nurturing Young People’s Potential — the Volunteer’s Role’ conference at the Cork International Airport Hotel. Among them will be Foróige’s longest serving volunteer, John Sullivan, 76, from Kilkenny, who joined as a leader aged 25. “We all have to try and give something back and I couldn’t think of anything better than through Foróige,” he said. “What’s become very evident in my 50-odd years as a leader is that young people need a safe place and a properly run Foróige club is as safe as you can get. “Whatever talents or skills we have, they’re not for our own exclusive use. “There’s always an opportunity to use them for the betterment of your community.”
Read more of today’s news here