What’s it like delivering youth work on an island?

Graeme Johnston was last year named National Youth Worker of the Year for his work with Arran Youth Foundations. He, and fellow youth worker Hollie Watkins, recently won a Mental Health Foundation Scotland award for their work with young folk in Arran. Here Graeme shares what’s special about leading youth work on the island.

I have been responsible for youth work on Arran for the last seven and a half years. It’s been a challenge, but one I have really loved. Winning full-time Youth Worker of the Year at last year’s National Youth Worker of the Year Awards meant a great deal to me. It’s lovely to be recognised for the work you do and even better for that to come from the young people who nominate you. So I thought it might be interesting to give a little insight in to delivering youth work on an island through the charity I work for, Arran Youth Foundations.

When I started in 2010, we only had an 8x20ft portacabin to call home, with a TV and a Nintendo Wii. A handful of young folk would pop in to our one weekly activity, Friday night drop-in. We now have large youth cabins in Lamlash which are kitted out with 55” televisions, the latest consoles, music equipment and loads of other great resources, as well as the use of Brodick Church halls. Attendance on a Friday now is usually over 50 young folk. And we provide 14 weekly sessions, with more than 200 young folk registered and engaged in youth work activities, from a high school of 240. Some of them have been with us all that time, are now in their late teens and are our young helpers. That growth is one of things I’m proudest of from my time on Arran.

The main issues that Arran Youth Foundations looks to address are social isolation, exclusion, lack of opportunity, and substance abuse. For an island that seems so idyllic to holidaymakers, it can be hard to explain rural deprivation – we have young people who live in caravans, have suffered from abuse, struggle with low mental health, or turn to drugs and alcohol out of boredom. The charity’s main aims are to build confidence in young people, teach them new skills, and provide them with opportunities to increasingly take on responsibility and decision-making. Through all of this, we are looking to address the opinion of old that there is nothing on Arran for young people and no one who cares about them. Young people now know that there is an organisation who cares deeply about them.

Our 14 weekly sessions include: daily lunchtime drop-in; cooking club, which culminates in an annual restaurant night where young people prepare a three-course meal for invited parents and guests; one-to-one mentoring activities with a boy who has oppositional defiant disorder; after-school drop-in group covering issues such as mental health, smoking, alcohol; professional guitar tuition; youth forum; mixed-abilities running club; Friday night drop-in; and the group I am proudest of, our recently-formed LGBT+ club, which has already given so much support to Arran’s LGBT young people. Past projects have included a National 4 accredited film-making club, a wood-carving project and an IT peer education group.

In the near future, we are also looking to start an art psychotherapy group, a girls’ after-school football club, and a job club to connect young people not in education, employment or training with opportunities. Through school holidays, we also provide free opportunities to all of Arran’s young people in the way of trips and events on the island: a trip to Alton Towers, paintballing, outdoor education, paragliding, car mechanics, live sports matches and so on.

Finally, a word on the young people of Arran. Never in more than 10 years of youth work have I met a more special, resilient group of kids than I have on Arran. On an island that is nearly 60 miles round, many of them travel by bus for close to an hour to reach school, an hour to get home, and then just a few hours later, do the same journey back and forth to reach Friday night youth club. Nothing deters them – for running club or other outdoor activities we provide, attendance is never impacted by rain, wind, snow or storms. Thanks to Arran Youth Foundations for giving me the best job in the world, and huge thanks to the young folk of Arran for making it the best job in the world!

Graeme Johnston is a youth worker at Arran Youth Foundations. His blog originally appeared on the Youthlink website.