Concerns over young people and alcohol have been in the news this week, following reports that 26 young people attended the A&E department at Letterkenny General Hospital on the same night, all presenting with alcohol-related conditions.
But for the last six weeks a team of volunteers in Letterkenny have been quietly but visibly engaged in a Letterkenny Youth and Family Service pilot programme that offers young people something to do on a Friday night that doesn’t involve drink.
Streetz LK volunteers head out every Friday night to talk with young people who are out on the town streets, from Main Street to housing estates. They’ve organised football matches at 10 pm and invited the young players back for pizza afterwards at Letterkenny Youth and Family Service offices in Glencar. They’re planning to hold a late-night barbecue in the woods.
“We’ve had young people telling us that because we’re here and doing things, they’re not drinking on a Friday night anymore,” said Garry Glennon, manager of Letterkenny Youth and Family Service.
Streetz LK was developed as a response to the needs of young people who are on the street late at night. The programme seeks out alternative activities for young people, makes sure they’re safe, makes sure they’re acting responsibly. The programme is funded by the North West Alcohol Forum and the Health Promotion Department of the Health Service Executive through the National Lottery Fund.
“It’s an opportunity to engage with young people to find out what their needs are,” Garry said.
The initiative was nearly two years in the making, as Garry met with other service providers to discuss his proposal. There has been great support from Letterkenny gardaí, as well as from Donegal Children’s Services Committee, Donegal Sports Partnership and the Strengthening Families Programme. This Friday night Streetz LK planned to hold a night for nails and mini-facials for girls, and hairdresser Patrick Gildea offered to do some hairstyling, Garry said.
“There are people from the community who really want to make this work,” he said.
They kicked off the programme this past summer, setting up a gazebo in Letterkenny’s Market Square and offering sandwiches, juice and biscuits to young people who were out celebrating Junior Certificate Examination results. They also provided a free shuttle bus service to take young people home from an under-18 disco, ensuring they got home safe and at a reasonable time.
Since then, Garry and the six Streetz LK volunteers have been on the street five consecutive Fridays, from about 9.30 pm until 1.30 am or later.
It’s a big commitment that shows the volunteer team’s dedication. Garry said the volunteers were also grateful to understanding family members who support their work.
While Garry said he did not want to blow the situation out of proportion, he said the team has found children as young as age 12 misusing alcohol.
“It’s one of the things that’s quite alarming,” he said.
For example, one night they found two 12-year-old girls and a 13-year-old girl “in quite a bad condition” after consuming an excessive amount of alcohol, Garry said. The volunteers facilitated a lift home for the girls.
“We can’t walk past them. We can’t leave them alone,” Garry said. “Everybody’s got a duty of care, not just young people but adults as well. If someone needs help, we’re there.”
On another night, on a residential street, they saw two young men who appeared to be about to start fighting each other. But they were able to talk the men through the conflict and a 20-year-old man who lived nearby came out of his house to help.
“He was very good with young people himself, and it was good to see,” Garry recalled. There was a lot of commotion on the street that night.
“The most interesting thing to me was that nobody came out of their house to say to the young people, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing it?’” Garry said.
The volunteers wear jackets bearing the project name and call into gardaí at the start of the night to let them know they’re heading out. They stick to planned routes, some nights travelling nearly four miles from one estate to another. They generally engage about 40 young people each night they’re out.
“We’re very visible,” Garry said. When they come on a group of young people, “We have a chat and see if anything is going on, and let them know the services we’re doing and the events in the town, music or whatever.” At the end of the night the team evaluates what they’ve learned, issues that have come up or services they may want to contact for assistance.
It’s a pilot project at the moment. Streetz LK has been funded to last eight weeks though Garry said they hope “to stretch the money a wee bit” to last 10 weeks.
“I’d love to see this continue long term,” he said. “I really want to make sure that it continues.”