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Groundbreaking new Irish Medium Youth Project launched in West Belfast

Unique Project for children with additional learning needs ‘first of its kind in Ireland’

Sólás na nÓg, a groundbreaking new youth project aimed at providing bespoke youth provision through Irish to children and young people with additional learning needs, will be officially launched on Wednesday 30th of November by the Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner. The project, supported by the National Lottery Community Fund, is the first of its kind anywhere in Ireland and is yet another milestone in the continued development of Irish-medium youth services.

Introducing the project in Glór na Móna community hub, Gael-Ionad Mhic Goill, Chairperson of the Project Steering group and Director of Irish Medium Regional Youth representative umbrella body Fóram na nÓgProject Orliath Mhic Leannáín stated:

‘Sólás na nÓg is a huge development for the Irish Medium revival and especially for those young people with additional learning needs who struggled to access our mainstream Irish medium youth services. We originally piloted the scheme in 2019 when I worked as Youth Coordinator here in Glór na Móna, with support from EA. We then further developed the concept through the National Lottery Awards for All scheme in 2020-21.

‘This gave us a foundation to build a youth-led steering group and an advisory support panel of parents and practitioners who informed our research process carried out by Dr Orla Nig Oirc, who was carrying out her PhD at the time at Queens on Educational Inequality in the Irish Medium Education sector. We  would like to thank the National Lottery, Community Fund for putting faith in this fantastic project and our inspirational young people who dared to dream big for a service that they not only needed but are also entitled to!

In my current role with Fóram na nÓg, I will continue to advocate for the rights of young people being educated through the medium of Irish to ensure that the adequate resources are made available to them. In particular, the Department of Education must ensure that they continue their engagement with the Irish Medium sector both Formal and informal to ensure the adequate resources and diagnostic tools and services are in place to meet the needs of all children and young people.

Orliath’s comments were followed by Youth Project Coordinator, Padraigín Nic Mhathúna who added:

‘Due to securing this valuable funding support from the National Lottery Community Fund, the Solas na nOg project now has myself as a full-time coordinator and 6 part-time youth workers. We now operate 3 nights per week across 2 sessions and cater for  junior and senior members aged 8 to 18.

‘Our holistic programme is shaped by the project sub-title,  ‘Comhbhá, Cothú agus Cumasú’ which means ‘compassion, nurture and support’. Our programmes are led by the unique and diverse needs of our young people and aim to enhance the  personal, social, and emotional capacity of our young people in a nurturing and welcoming safe space that also embeds their sociolinguistic needs. This involves a wide-ranging programme of training, learning and therapeutic interventions that these young people have never had the opportunity to avail of previously.We are excited about what the next four years can bring and how our young people can grow and develop.’

Speaking on behalf of the National Lottery Community Fund, Paul Sweeney stated:

‘I chair the National Lottery Community Fund in the North and this was one of my first projects that I was involved in when I started 18 months ago. It’s exactly what this fund should be doing. It’s community based and grassroots. It’s built around the needs of young people and  it’s empowering a whole new generation of local community based youth workers. It’s got a very committed board of directors and just as we walked into the room this evening you could just feel the energy and the spirit in the room.

More importantly, the project is a path finder in terms of policy making. We were particularly impressed by the research element to the project and the fact that it will be peer-reviewed and aims to produce solid policy recommendations. This project is breaking new ground. When you get local schools, good youth work, led by local people, it has a tremendous impact on the education, empowerment, confidence building and resilience of young people and it epitomises the type of project that the national lottery wants to be associated with. We are very proud to be associated with this over the next four years and we wish the project every success.’

This was followed by glowing praise from the Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, who added:

‘I would like to begin with a reminder that Irish medium education has 22% of children with special educational needs, most aren’t statemented which is an issue in itself because it means that the schools themselves are providing the support. In the mainstream English Medium sector, it’s 18%, so the Irish medium schools sector has disproportionately more children with special education needs so if you look at the formal education sector, you will quite rightly ask, where is that being mirrored in the youth sector. Young people and respect for the voices and rights of young people are central to this fantastic project.

What does it mean to respect the rights of young people? It means that we don’t discriminate, it means that we are centred on their survival and development and it means that we hear  their voices. I can see children’s rights being lived and experienced in this place and its right that the lottery fund that.  And I really hope to see youth projects like Sólas na nÓg scaled up across the north, wherever there is a school, there should be a youth service nearby for those children with SEN who need it.’

The packed venue then heard from a young person Cian Ó Riardáin, who was amongst the first cohort involved in the project back in 2019. Commenting on his importance of the project, Cian said:

‘When Sólás na nÓg formed in 2019 I was invited to attend by my classroom assistant Roibeard who supported educationally on a one to one basis. It immediately became my safe space. A place where I felt understood  and had a great sense of belonging. I was able to create relationships and friendships with others, something I never really understood before.

‘At present, I continue to volunteer with Sólás na nÓg and being afforded the opportunity to volunteer gave me the opportunity to understand kids that were just like me. This helped me add to my skill set. From a young age I had always dreamt of being a funeral director. I always felt judgement around this but the Sólás na nÓg team encouraged me to pursue this. Not only did they encourage me but they helped add to my skill set with training opportunities including an OCN qualification as well as developing my social skills. This gave me the confidence to call into organisation and express my interest in wishing to be employed as a funeral director. In July of this year I was successful in gaining employment and becoming the youngest funeral director in Ireland. I am currently furthering my study with the national association of funeral Directors, something I thought would never happen.

‘Having Sólás na nÓg in our community means that young people have a safe space that provides tailored services for their needs through the medium of Irish. As a young person this is the only service I can access that is specific to me and my needs, having this available in Irish allows me to develop in every aspect of my life.I left school last year and still feel that this service is essential for me, although I am in full time employment it is a place  where I can develop, make use of my Irish and be me.’

Watch the full video of the launch:

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