Features

Student innovators making a difference
Mags Gargan meets young activists working to solve problems they see in their communities

Farm safety, human trafficking, sexual consent, mental health, animal cruelty, eating disorders and climate change were among some of the issues being tackled by teenagers competing for the Young Social Innovators of the Year 2017 title.

About 800 young people from schools across the country attended the national awards in the Convention Centre in Dublin last week. Previous years saw about 4,500 youths attend the awards to showcase their projects in a day-long festival atmosphere that included workshops and games. This year financial restraints saw only the finalists attend a more scaled-down ceremony, however this did not dampen the excitement or enthusiasm of the contestants.

Young Social Innovators (YSI) is a non-profit youth organisation co-founded in 2001 by Sr Stan Kennedy and Rachel Collier to encourage young people to bring about change in their communities and wider society. 

Change

“Young people bring passion, energy and ideas to the forefront that have the ability to change our nation. They are one of our greatest resources and it is vital that they are listened to,” Sr Stan said. “Social innovation gives young people a chance to realise their potential and develop entrepreneurial skills to create a more equal and fair society. The YSI Awards showcase the very best that our young people have to offer.”

The programme is open to secondary school students and aims to empower young people and give them the skills to come up with solutions to social problems that will benefit their communities. Since 2006 the YSI has been holding Speak Out Fora which gives young people a platform to present their projects on their chosen social issue. The presentations can involve music, singing, theatre and artistic displays, and the award finalists are chosen from the Speak Outs.

Following a 2,000 mile Speak Out tour where 7,000 young social innovators and 456 teams were invited to present their projects at 16 events in March, just 11 teams were selected to compete for the 2017 title of Young Social Innovators of the year.

Students from Largy College, Clones, Co. Monaghan took the top prize with their project titled Mend a Mind – It’s a Disorder Not a Decision, which aims to raise awareness about mental health in their school and community and to educate people about the mental health issues that are most pertinent to young people.

“It’s so prominent and the statistics are heartbreaking,” says Caoimhe O’Gorman. “Like every year 77 people in secondary schools commit suicide , 66 boys and 11 girls. It’s hard-hitting stuff to think that it is people your own age. It could be any one of us. We want to promote positive mental health and eliminate the stigma around it.”

The students held numerous events throughout the year to try and improve the mental health of their school and town community, including meditation for Leaving Cert students and healthy smoothies for primary school students.

“We handed out candles in glass jars to every family in our community and we had a ‘light up’ ceremony at night,” says Maeve Monahan. “We sang songs and read poems. It was so touching and some people cried.”

“We did a flash mob on Grafton Street,” says Caoimhe. “We had a digital detox and spent 24 hours at an adventure centre and bonded as a group without our phones. We had to talk to each other and learned the importance of communication.”

“We also had a free family fun day at a sports centre,” says Maeve. “It was all sponsored and we had a bouncy castle, cookery demonstrations, tea and coffee, a relaxation room and a lady gave massages. Some of the local county footballers came and gave demonstrations.”

Feedback

The girls say the feedback from the community has been great and they really enjoyed their project and look forward to taking it further after their win. 

The silver award went to St Joseph’s College Lucan, Co. Dublin for their project ‘No Limits’ on social inclusion and Tullamore College, Co. Offaly was awarded bronze for’ Think Safety, Farm Safely’ on staying safe on the farm.

An additional six teams were awarded in a variety of other categories, and this year following the introduction of the programme to Junior Cycle students, the first Junior Award was presented to St Farnan’s Post-Primary School in Co. Kildare for their project #DogDefenders.

The Step Up Challenge was won by Portmarnock Community School in Co. Dublin for an incredible project that saw the students meet not only three government ministers from Lesotho, but also the King and Queen.

“For the past three years we have been using open street map,” explains Sam Barlow. “It’s a tool that allows us to draw on satellite images and create digital maps for developing countries. It’s all open source so all you need to access it is an email address and mapping is a free skill anyone can learn.

“We have been focussing on a country landlocked by South Africa called Lesotho. They called for help three years ago so we started with them. We met the ministers from Lesotho back in February and we saw the positive impact that we have had. Last year Lesotho had their most accurate census to date using the maps we created and they are now using it for planning purposes. We’ve also partnered with a Swedish company that turns our 2D maps into 3D maps for free. Now we’ve moving from Lesotho to all the developing countries in the world.”

‘Deal with the Wheels’ was the project by St Mary’s Secondary School Ballina in Co. Mayo which examined the issue of wheelchair accessibility.

“We’re raising awareness of the difficulties wheelchair users face and we’re trying to create a more friendly atmosphere for wheelchair users,” says Grainne Moyles.

“If I walk past a car in a disabled spot now I check to see if they have a disabled badge. I am tuned into now and I think all the girls are too. We are more compassionate since speaking to wheelchair users and seeing what they go through.”

Hugh Dooley from St Vincent’s High School says during their project ‘All About Maria’ he learned a lot about “the negative effects of drugs and what to do if you find someone who has taken an overdose”. “People might think some drugs are safe but different people can react in different ways to different drugs,” he says.

Our Lady’s College Greenhills in Co. Louth did their project on human trafficking and Eleanor McHugh says she has learned a lot from the research. “We found it was a very prominent issue not just in other countries but also in Ireland. A lot of people don’t think of it as a problem here. The sale of sex has gone up 70% since 2014, so we decided to introduce more awareness in Irish schools.” 

The school has raised money for Ruhama, a charity that supports women vulnerable to trafficking, and hopes to become a sister school to the Girls’ Sunshine Home in Vietnam “which takes vulnerable girls off the streets”.

Speaking at the ceremony, Minister Simon Coveney said the young people “bring new insight, passion and innovative actions to many of the difficult challenges we face today”. 

“We need to enable and empower each and every citizen, through programmes such as Young Social Innovators, to actively engage and build not only a strong economy, but a fair society,” he said.