Mon, Jul 9th, 2018
James Bilson is Coordinator of YMCA’s STEP programme in Cobh, Co.Cork. James works with young people aged 17-25, from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have no second-level education, are unemployed or are early school leavers. In this post, James charts YMCA’s experiences as he brings us through the six steps of their successful Erasmus+ Youth Exchange.
In 2015 I attended an Erasmus+ youth worker training in Cyprus, during which we were encouraged to ‘network’. This is a term open to many interpretations, but on this occasion I happened to meet with Hildur, a youth worker with UIA in Eastern Iceland. We got talking about our young people and the types of work we do and the notion of arranging a youth exchange between our two organisations was born. Fast forward through some lengthy Skype calls and the obligatory application forms and a little under six months later, the f:IRE and ICE youth exchange was ‘on’.
“f:IRE & ICE”: not just another name for Iceland itself but for the broad objectives of the Youth Exchange: (Fun, Fitness, Further yourself and your Future plans): IREland and ICEland.
Research consistently shows the value of active and healthy lifestyles for both physical and mental well being. On the other hand, our young people consistently report being inactive (by their own admission!) and experience significant mental health challenges.
Taking the concept of ‘wilderness’ camps, we created a physically active, week-long schedule to make the most of the unique surroundings of Iceland, but also included digital media training and personal development (through reflections, yoga, art and drama, meeting new people and experiencing a new culture).
It was something of a steep learning curve for us all! We had to:
By the time we departed Dublin it felt like an achievement already! And in some respects it was. Some of the young people had never flown before, others had not spent more than a night away from their parents and several had a history of anxiety and substance misuse. To get these guys up and away from it all, feeling confident and positive, was an achievement.
The week we spent in Egilstaddir was truly memorable. Iceland in late August is quite mild, very green and has about 20 hours of daylight. We hiked to waterfalls, mountains and rivers; up to the snow line; out into the wilderness. We stayed in a traditional Icelandic home and one or two of the night owls even saw some early season Northern Lights.
As a trip this was a lot, but alongside this something else was happening. New friendships were made, cultural experiences took place, confidence and happiness blossomed and (a brief tummy bug in the group aside), there was non-stop fun and craic, and all of it self-made in the middle of nowhere, and without computer games or alcohol or drugs.
Our STEP participant, Evan, described the Iceland experience in the following way: “I wasn’t really sure what to expect at first as I’ve never been away from home on my own before and I wasn’t sure how I’d adapt to Icelandic culture but now looking back, it was the best experience of my life. I made friends for life, I came right out of my comfort zone and learned so much about myself on a personal level. As the week went on you could feel the bond between the Irish and the Icelandic groups getting closer and closer. It was a bit emotional to leave and say goodbye given that one week ago we were all strangers to each other and now we’re all really close friends.”
Nine months later the Icelanders came to Ireland to rekindle the ‘f:IRE’. An activity-packed week spent in Kerry and Cobh included hikes, mountain walks, paddle boarding and kayaking, sports and the challenge of organising a Viking-clap Flash-mob in Killarney!
The week also featured a personal journey ‘storytelling workshop’ from Narrative4, a photographic exhibition in Cobh’s Sirius Arts Centre and a visit from the Nationwide cameras that resulted in a feature earlier this year:
Evan shares that “It was amazing to see them all again here in Cork, and they were so excited to see Ireland and learn about our culture which was great. We did some culture nights and went on some scenic trips and continued learning about both our countries and cultures. It was amazing all round”.
Several months after the exchange it is fair to say that there was a lot of learning for us as a staff:
But the final word belongs to the young people themselves, and eloquently put by Evan:
“I gained so much confidence from this trip. Since I did it I feel I can talk to people a lot easier than before. Since then I’ve gone on to college and studied Early Years Special Needs and achieved my qualification. Currently (and ironically!) I have a job in Iceland (the food store) so something is telling me that the word ‘Iceland’ is never leaving me, and the whole experience certainly never will either.”
Over the two years we have developed a great friendship as well as a working relationship with Hildur, Gunnar and all at UIA. This, plus the fact that Iceland has a fantastic record of tackling youth alcohol use and abuse by using sports and activities, is the reason we will be working with them again. Whether this involves another Youth Exchange or some other form of collaboration remains to be seen but there is so much we have already learned and so much more we can learn from working together. We are also looking at the world of opportunities that Erasmus+ has provided and we are learning more about sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships and connections and it is fair to say that we are excited by the possibilities and whatever comes next.
All images courtesy of James Bilson, Cobh YMCA. Article republished with kind permission from James Bilson: view the full and original blog at http://ireland2iceland.blogspot.com/2016/.
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