A day in the life with Foroige’s Blanchardstown youth officers

by Sylvia Pownall

Foroige’s Helena Clarke spends a day with one of the organisation’s youth officers in Blanchardstown, following 28-year-old Laura as she leads a group of autistic teens, prepares for her Early School Leavers class, and supports volunteers and members on a club visit. Here’s how she got on:

Today we’re with Laura Quirke, or ‘Quirky’ as her colleagues in Blanchardstown call her. She’s worked with Foróige for three years and has kindly allowed me to follow her about for the day, so we can get a glimpse of her life as a youth worker in Blanchardstown.

I join Laura just after lunch. On Mondays she works 1 – 9.30pm. She greets me with a big smile and shows me to her desk. The Blanchardstown Foróige office is a bustling centre of activity. There’s always staff and young people in and out, with constant programmes, activities and clubs running out of a building with kitchens, a sound studio, workshop rooms, a den hangout area and more for young people in the area.     

Laura explains that the first couple of hours of her day will mainly be filled with admin work, so I settle myself down at a desk alongside, as she focuses on writing up her plans. Each programme she runs needs to be clearly laid out regarding target group, aims, timetables and activities. January is all about setting up schedules for the year, reviewing how the last year went and planning for the future.

After a couple of hours, she looks at me and announces, ‘Time to get supplies.’ It’s biting cold outside, but then again it is the middle of January. Laura will run a baking group tonight for young people with autism. So we head to the local supermarket and buy enough chocolate, butter and sugar to fuel even the biggest teenage appetite.

With the kitchen stocked Laura jokes: “You’ll think all we do is bake in Blanchardstown, but it just so happens that’s what’s scheduled for both groups this evening.”

We head back to the desks and Laura gets down to prepping for this evening’s club visit, followed by the baking group and her Early School Leavers class in the morning. “I was never great in school,” she confides, “so it’s a little ironic to be teaching now, but perhaps it’s why I understand and get on with the group so well.”

The Early School Leavers she’ll be teaching in the morning, “are out of school for all kinds of reasons,” she explains. “The structure of school hasn’t worked for them so the alternative approach to education in Foróige, using short bursts and programmes based upon real-life, works with their needs. A lot of these young people face serious challenges, so while they are here, we can assist them and you can really see it benefitting them. As youth workers we are trained to show empathy for their particular challenges and we can really help them deal with their emotional issues as much as everything else.”

Laura jumps up and throws on her coat. At this stage it’s dark outside and the rain is pelting down, but it doesn’t seem to faze her. It’s time for our club visit to Mulhuddart. With the wipers going, and visibility poor Laura explains that she supports nine Foróige clubs in total. This is alongside her direct work two days a week in Blakestown, teaching early school leavers, and leading other clubs. The clubs she looks after range from the special interest cooking club we’re about to visit, to older girl’s groups, junior groups, a DJ club, a guitar club and boys group.  She tells me “There are a lot of variables to facilitating young people. The leaders in this club are amazing though, so while the club is small now I don’t think it will be for long. Thomas is an actual baker, and Natasha has really strong practical skills.”

The group is made up of girls aged 10/11. They’re shy when we first arrive, but soon excitedly tell us about all of the wonderful creations they’ve made in the last few months, which alongside the powerful smells of chocolate and baking is enough to start any stomach rumbling!

The girls are so enthusiastic about their work, it’s clear that learning a skill like this at such a young age, alongside their friends, means a lot to them.   

Back in the car Laura tells me about studying social care in college, and how her first introduction to Foróige was as a Big Sister in the Big Brother Big Sister mentoring programme. She says “I started working for Foróige later, but there was no way I was going to just give up on the friendship I had already formed with my Little. When I first met her I was told she’d run off on me if we went down to Blanch Centre or anything like that. I didn’t know what I’d do if she ran off so we just stayed in the sports centre for the first few months. By the time we went out we had our friendship and she always stayed with me. I always make sure to be there for her every week.”

We arrive back at the Foróige main office in Blanchardstown just before the baking group is to start. The young people in the group are all on the autistic spectrum. Laura says “the community came to us about starting this group, so we decided to test the waters, and held an information evening which was really popular.” She explains that one of the special things about this group is that parents aren’t there. What this means for the young people is that they get to experience some independence in a social setting and they really respond to it. They say things like “you mean my mam and dad won’t be there? Oh that’s great, that’s really great!”

The group’s age ranges from twelve to eighteen. Laura says: “We have one girl who really struggles with communication, she’s very shy and doesn’t like to speak at all. We’ve spoken with her mum and she comes every week, not because she’s being made to or anything but because she wants to be there. She’s never verbally told us how she feels, but last week she wrote it on her phone and showed us which was a massive step for her.”  

The young people file in, dropped off at the door by parents, most are happy and excited. Others explain in the opening catch-up that they’re feeling a bit blue today for a range of reasons from finding school difficult to just not liking Mondays. When the baking begins, they are divided into small groups which works really well for the range of abilities in the room. Laura instructs each group gently whilst keeping progress going. Some of the boys find it difficult to focus on tasks like stirring, or weighing, but everyone is allowed the space to do what they can and encouraged to enjoy socialising together.  

I watch the group leave happy and chilled. They’ve baked, danced and relaxed with their friends, what more could you ask for in the depths of winter? I ask Laura if she’s happy with how it all went. She says “at the beginning I was worried taking on this group. Would my experience match the challenge? But Foróige is such a special place, not just for the young people, but the staff too. I really appreciate the ongoing training like the workshop on autism I did last year.

“Foróige works with you to facilitate what you need, so it keeps up your morale. Sometimes the work is difficult, and the young people can be rude or call you every name under the sun, so there are difficult days, but the support system in place, with co-workers and managers is just what you need to get you through all that and enjoy the good bits.”

With the day done, everyone waved off and safely back with their families, Laura locks up the centre. It’s 9.30pm and the rain has not stopped, but these young people in Blanchardstown have had somewhere fun and safe to go, and some very good adults to talk to.

To find out more about Foroige visit www.foroige.ie

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