THE worth of youth organisations has come to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic according to a new report published today by the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI).
Titled ‘A Review of the Youth Work Sector Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic’, Deborah Erwin and Lorraine Thompson’s report traces the efficacy of youth services and groups in recent months via qualitative and quantitative research methods.
These included “a survey of youth services, focus groups with young people, ‘check-in’ sessions with youth workers, and interviews with youth-sector stakeholders”.
Of local interest, Little Red Kettle Theatre, Children’s Group Link and Waterford and South Tipperary Community Youth Service participated in the stakeholder interviews and ‘check-in’ sessions.
The report highlights how the pandemic has made it more difficult for youth services to engage with ‘at risk’ or marginalised young people. Two thirds (67%) of youth workers surveyed cited this as a key limitation of the move to online models of working.
One of the report’s area of interest relates to the level of positive feedback offered by those who have availed of services in recent months.
“We’d have been really stuck, we’d have been stuck looking at a wall,” said one. “To be fair, I’m not even being biased or anything they have done everything they could do because they were always texting you and looking to chat, and if we couldn’t they would always rearrange it.”
Another respondent stated: “It has helped connect with other young people. There was nothing they could have done better; they are the best I’ve ever had.”
According to another respondent: “I think youth organisations were able to recognise that young people were feeling lonely during this time and not able to meet up with friends so they acted quickly to move their events online so that students and young people could interact with them and not feel disconnected from the environment.”
Interestingly, another interviewee said their level of involvement in youth programmes had increased since March.
“I was surprised how quickly organisations mobilised,” said another respondent. “My first thought was that it would go down in involvement and that kind of thing but if anything my involvement was able to go up and I was able to get more involved than previously and I think that says a lot about how previously youth organisations might not have been taking advantage of online communications as much as they could have been to include people who might not have been able to get transport or might not have the funds to get to these things where I know a lot of these things are pre-funded and stuff but sometimes people just can’t afford it and I think moving forward looking at that it could be a very good opportunity for growth for a lot of organisations.”
The report says that “just one of the interviewees reflected a level of disappointment with follow-up and there were a couple of comments on the need for quicker responses to provide training in specific online platforms, and the need for greater clarity sooner about (a youth support provider’s) roadmap”.
Highlighting limitations and challenges during the pandemic, many of which were related to online interaction, the report notes “that some young people are not comfortable with online engagement and this might provide an explanation as to why there was a 70% drop in the numbers of young people engaged among survey respondents.”
According to one youth worker there was a “difficulty in maintaining relationships with young people that don’t engage online for no reason (in addition to a) limited amount of online activity options.”
Another youth worker noted a “drop in the level of participation. Young people being non contactable, particularly those in the Travelling community with no internet or phones. Cannot provide a safe space for the young people in their own homes with family members coming in and out while the young person is online. Some young people don’t like their face on the screen.”
A third worker added: “The challenges have been that our young people having been missing out on a safe environment to just be who they are. Some young people do not have a safe and inclusive environment in their own homes, and privacy issues in the home have been a major issue for our young people.”
According to NYCI Chief Executive Mary Cunningham: “The pandemic exposed a whole range of inequalities and exacerbated vulnerabilities in the youth sector. While, undoubtedly, youth workers in Waterford – and throughout the country – showed their creativity and flexibility in numerous ways, it does not make the marginalisation experienced by young people any less challenging. The drop in engagement levels paints a stark picture and demonstrates just how important face-to-face youth work is, particularly for those in marginalised and vulnerable situations.”
As for what lies ahead, Mrs Cunningham stated: “Youth organisations need to be ready to change at a moment’s notice and prepare to offer a ‘blended’ approach to youth services combining digital and face-to-face methods. In the coming months, funding and investment for the youth sector will be vital, as will technological innovation and ICT infrastructure, training for digital skills and on various digital platforms, and Covid-19 compliance.”