Celebrity supporter, actor Adrian Dunbar told The Irish Post: “Being from Northern Ireland myself, I can’t help but hold a special place for Ardoyne in my heart. Ardoyne Youth Centre is located in North Belfast, an urban area of deprivation still dealing with the legacy of the conflict. Thomas is the most perfect example of why this project is so important. He became involved in trouble at the age of 18 and did community service at the Centre. He then became a volunteer and later qualified in youth work. His aim is to ensure that all local young people have an outlet providing opportunities for education, training and future employment and enjoyment in a safe place. The way Thomas turned his fate around is inspirational; the work he does to enable others to do the same is heroic. He is so deserving of The Hibernian Hero title.”
Thomas Turley began work at the Ardoyne Youth Centre in Belfast as a volunteer. Ten years later he is the Leader in Charge and works tirelessly to ensure young people from across Belfast get the same opportunities as he did from the centre, which he claims “changed his life”.
Tell us about the charity and your role:
“I was born and raised in Ardoyne and this centre was always my local youth club. So when I was given a community service sentence as an 18- year-old for riotous behaviour — which was purely down to having nothing else to do — I chose to serve my 240 hours here. I completed my hours in six months but I asked to stay on. I realised I really liked helping these young people, watching them grow and being a positive influence in their lives. Which is what we still try to do here today. Ten years later, as leader in charge, I also have the day-to-day responsibilities of running the club and managing the staff and volunteers.”
What services does the charity provide for Irish children?
“Our main aim is to be a provider for the young people in the local and surrounding areas. We have about 500 young people on our books, from about eight to 25 years old, and we provide them with a place to come where they can access opportunities in education, employment and training. Our centre is a voluntary set-up which they can chose to come and go from as they please as we open an open-door policy. We also have seven football teams and offer a midnight club for harder to reach young people aged 14 and over, who don’t usually attend youth activities.
How does IYF funding support your work?
“Our most recent IYF grants have allowed us to grow and facilitate our midnight project, which helps us reach out to the most high-risk young people — the ones who don’t engage.We stay open until midnight and can have anything from 40-70 young people here for that particular club. It helps us make them feel like part of the organisation, which allows us to help to change their lifestyle. We will also be taking some of the boys from this group to South Africa to visit a township as part of a cross community charity programme, bringing together young people from Catholic and Protestant communities here in Belfast to make the trip. The IYF money allows us to grow these programmes, to get the young people in, to give them these opportunities and ultimately train them up so they can make better choices for their futures.”
How important is the work you do for children you serve?
“We live in an area ranked ninth in the social depuration ranks, out of 600 regions. This area is in a pretty bad way and our young people feel the brunt of it. What we do here is try to provide a place to suit their needs, where they will want to come to — a place that will distract them from getting involved in anti-social behaviour and help them avoid the worst case scenario that is becoming all too prevalent here. We need more focus on education, training, employment and health as we have lost far too many young people to suicide. This is what we try to provide here; without us that deprivation ranking would no doubt push closer to one as antisocial behaviour would increase. Without our youth services the young people, the local area and the families who live in it would all suffer. Without these resources you can’t reach these young people to get them involved. Sadly, without a positive influence they fall into the likes of house-breaking, drugs and alcohol abuse, unemployment and also unfortunately suicide — which is a massive issue in our area. Because of the lack of employment and education and training a lot of young people don’t see themselves as having a future, they become depressed and seek other alternatives which may not be good for them which too often leads to suicide.”
What does it mean to your organisation to be nominated for the IYF Hibernian Hero Award?
“It’s absolutely amazing to be nominated for the Hibernian Hero Award. When we got the call to tell us it was unreal. The only way your organisation is going to be able to keep achieving and reaching out to the community is by being highlighted, so people know what we are doing for young people. This recognition helps us greatly so just to get the exposure through the nomination is of huge importance to the work we do and the children we help. To win would be unbelievable and it would be a massive credit to the young people who make the organisation survive.”