President Higgins told the “talented and spirited young people” they had helped change society for the better when he presented them with their awards in Dublin Castle.
“When we are encouraged to test our limits and to push beyond the horizons of what we thought was possible, and when we do so always seeking to care for the welfare of others, we learn to look beyond the inevitabilities by which we so often live our lives,” he said.
“That is a critical experience, fundamental to the development of pro-active, engaged, compassionate citizens who are not afraid to make a difference and to challenge the status quo so as to craft better communities and a better society.”
Over the course of their Gaisce challenges, the awardees contributed more than 10,000 hours to helping their communities, developing skills and achieving personal goals.
The chief executive of Gaisce, Yvonne McKenna, said the Gaisce vision for Ireland was to have a country where young people could dream big and fulfil their potential.
“Our aim for the coming years is to expand the reach of Gaisce so that every young person has the opportunity to participate in the programme and realise their dreams and ambitions,” said Ms KcKenna.
The award winners included five young people from the Doras Training Centre in Cork, which is part of the Cope Foundation.
The young people, all in their early 20s, are Daniel Connolly, Ruby Hardy Brown, Ann Kingsbury, Matthew Murphy, and Gavin O’Flynn.
Over a three-year period, they developed a skill, did voluntary work in their community — one hour a week for 72 weeks — and walked the Beara Peninsula, a distance of 112km.
Their Gaisce team leader, Tony Walsh, an instructor at the Doras Training Centre, said he was immensely proud of the group.
“They were a very strong team. All of them stuck with the challenge and overcame significant obstacles to get the gold award,” said Mr Walsh.
Another recipient was Louise Whittle, a primary school teacher from Limerick. While searching for work after returning from Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates to Ireland, Louise turned to Gaisce as she felt she was losing herself.
“I wanted to do something that was for the development of me as a person,” she said. “I wanted to focus on purely bettering myself and have one area of my life that wasn’t consumed by my job search.”
Gaisce, The President’s Award, is a self-development programme for young people aged 15 to 25 that has three levels — bronze, silver and gold. The more time and energy participants give, the greater their award.