AFTER many years as a youth worker serving Shannon, Thomas O’Hara is moving into the world of academia.
Thomas, who worked with Clare Youth Service in Shannon from 2006 to 2008, and again from 2011 until this year is taking up a position with TUS in Limerick (formerly Limerick Institute of Technology).
Speaking to the Champion, he said he had really enjoyed working with the young people of the town, and found the level of community spirit in Shannon to be very strong.
“The people there, the sense of community is absolutely amazing. Once people find out you are doing anything in the area they’re very quick to support it, I’ve found, and that was always an advantage to me in working with young people.”
“It was a great way of showing young people how community supports itself, how to get involved in your community.
“Sometimes that’s one of the key things for young people; where do I fit into my community, where do I see myself, what role do I have?
“The people, whenever I was doing anything, were always an advantage. They gave a practical example of how community works and how great it is. I’ve always found Shannon a very interesting place to work in.”
He loved working with local teenagers and seeing them develop into adults, while he says he learned a lot from them.
“I developed an awful lot of close working relationships with young people in Shannon and I watched young people grow up through the service.
“Young people would come to us when they’re around 13 or so and they’d be there for five years and beyond, then you’d still meet them on the street through doing outreach or whatever.
“You’d find out a bit more about young people than most, because that’s your focus. You’d learn from young people, it’s actually quite a privileged position to be in as a youth worker, because you get to see a different aspect. You get to keep in touch with what young people are doing.”
“Shannon was always very good for young people coming up with ideas, young people generating things they’d like to do in their community.
“There was the fun aspect of it and there was the learning aspect of it too, young people would always give you a fresh outlook on what you are doing.”
Asked about what the work in Shannon involved, he says it was really diverse.
“Every day was very, very different. For six months or so post-Covid, most of our work was around creating safe spaces for young people, with young people.
“What that would mean was creating space and time where young people can come in and agree on the way the space would run and then keeping those spaces going.
“An awful lot of it was geared towards late afternoons and evenings when young people were available. A lot of it was around drop-in spaces for young people to come in to, engage with a youth worker and if there are any issues coming up for young people they could come and deal with those, there was one to one support or signposting as to where they’d get support.”
“The other side of it was working on developing programmes with young people or developing plans and events with young people.
“We did something for Paddy’s Day, engaging with them on setting up a project or event and then putting them in the driving seat to organise that event and facilitate anything that needs to happen.”
What was Thomas’ favourite thing about the job? “I’d say the craic. There is great craic in youth work, great fun. You’re in a situation where you’re putting yourself out there for young people because they need to see that you’re able to do that, that you don’t ask a young person to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. That usually culminates in an awful lot of craic.
“There’s no normal day in youth work. It’s a series of different things that happen all the time and there’s great fun in that. The magic of being a youth worker is that you’re dealing with a different situation every day and you’re trying to make the best possible outcome from whatever happens in the day.”
“There’s good fun in it, also great learning, there’s great responsibility in it as well, that you’re working with young people and responsible for the time you spend with that young person.”
He was trying to help the young people, but at times they were teaching him.
“You find out you’re not always right as an adult! You definitely have an awful lot to learn as well as imparting any wisdom you have! You’re definitely learning all the time.”
Thomas acknowledges that there were some difficulties also.
“There are hard parts in every job. You’re always fighting a battle to open a project, that they’re well funded, there’s always pressure on that side of things. But you keep the focus on the young people.”
He would provide support to teenagers when they were going through difficult times, something he says was a privilege.
“When they’re going through tough things you’re trying to focus on those aspects, while making sure you’re minding yourself so you’re there for them.
“I wouldn’t say that was the hardest part of my job, that was the most privileged part of it, that somebody trusts you enough to talk about those sort of things.”
This month he has begun lecturing at TUS in the areas of community, social care and addiction studies, and while he was glad to go onto something new, he says working with Clare Youth Service was a fantastic experience.
“It was amazing. You couldn’t ask for a better team of people to work with. The learning I’ve had from people there has been absolutely astronomical.”
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.