Two Ballina-based coaches with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation have returned to Northern Ireland to deliver a week-long cross-community training programme that brought together young people from different communities and traditions in the North, and across the border, to build new skills and enhance community cohesion on the island of Ireland.
Johnathan Heffernan and Dan Gorman followed up their recent work in Belfast with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation ‘Youth In Action’ project, joining the first black player for Chelsea FC and club icon Paul Canoville and current Northern Ireland ladies international Ashley Hutton in Fermanagh to deliver workshops on mental health and wellbeing, an accredited Community Sports Leaders Award and a youth-led soccer tournament that included young people from Omagh and Fermanagh.
Youth groups from Ballina travelled to Enniskillen to participate in the community tournament and learn more about the project and how it could be replicated in Mayo.
Canoville was the first black player for Chelsea and suffered horrendous racism in his career both in the game and from the terraces. Following his retirement he suffered badly with his mental health, and now not only acts as a club ambassador, but also as a high-profile campaigner against racism and as an advocate for mental health issues.
Hutton has played over 110 games for Northern Ireland and is an advocate for female empowerment and representation both through and in the game of soccer. She also acts as an ambassador for the game and gives motivational workshops to young people while preparing to represent the North in the European Championship finals next year.
The Youth In Action project is supported by the UEFA Foundation and is a core part of a wider collaboration that uses sport to build positive relationships, leadership and opportunities for young people while tackling racism, inequality and xenophobia at a community level. Mayo, and Ballina in particular, has been and continues to be central to this collaboration – bringing together young people and sharing experiences and resources with colleagues across the Republic and the North and with colleagues based in Britain.
Youth In Action has been supported by stakeholders in Northern Ireland, including Omagh and Fermanagh district council locally in this case and the Police Service of Northern Ireland nationally. The Ballina delegation in Enniskillen included representation from the local Garda community team who met with colleagues in the North to share learning and see the impact the project has on community relations.
Johnathan Heffernan said:
‘It was an eye-opening experience to spend time with Paul Canoville in Enniskillen this week and hear what he went through from a racism and mental health perspective. I think it made a few of the young people really understand what the impact of their words and actions are. Paul was so honest in his approach and so enthusiastic in supporting the young people involved in the project, and they were so responsive to both him and Ashley on women’s equality and representation, that I can’t wait to bring this initiative to Mayo in the near future.’
Dan Gorman said:
‘In the past month we have spent so much time delivering coaching to young people and seeing them develop as young leaders – building relationships across ethnicities, cultures and traditions through the game of football. Its great for Mayo and Ballina that we are now so central to this ongoing work, and that we can become a hub for the West in a national and international partnership. Personally I have learnt so much over the past few months and I cannot wait for the next phase of the project here in Mayo.’
Jamie Muldoon from Ballina, who played in an integrated team with young people from Enniskillen and Omagh and won the Player of the Tournament award said:
‘It was a good day and it was nice to get everyone involved – especially the kids who never played football together before. I thought it was a great thing to do, especially with everything that’s going on at the moment, and meeting up with different people getting to know them through football makes a difference.’
Gary Stannett, CEO of the Rio Ferdinand Foundation and also based in Ballina said:
‘It’s been an intensive month of work for the Youth In Action programme across the island of Ireland with key events in Portadown, Belfast and Enniskillen. The support of current and former players and organisations within football has been wonderful and has given a huge impetus to our work.
However, it is key to remember that this would not possible without the enthusiasm and support of the young people involved in the programmes week in and week out, community organisations and football clubs who share a vision with us to utilise sport to build a more inclusive society, and local authorities and stakeholders who have supported the work with resources. It is this grass roots network that will create a sustainable legacy.
We look forward to working with local stakeholders and organisations in Mayo and Connacht in this next phase of the programme to build on the leading position the region is already taking in shaping our work across the island of Ireland and beyond.’