Tuesday 20 August 2019



WHEN YOU see a group of teenagers walking down the street in their hoodies, what do you think? ' Here comes trouble', ' Don't make eye contact', 'Keep your head down and walk on fast'.

But why is it that you think that? You don't know the teenagers that you're passing. You don't know where they have come from or what they are up to, but yet you still stereotype them and assume that they are only out to cause mayhem.

You don't give young people a chance, you believe, just because you heard on the news that a group of youths attacked a girl and left her in a coma in hospital, that all young people are the same. You are wrong.

Universities have an abundant supply of young people who go out and spend their time volunteering both here in Ireland and abroad.

Many people feel they can't give up their studies to go abroad and help directly, so they join campaigns such as letter writing for Amnesty International.

This involves receiving a case from the charity and writing a card or letter to someone in prison who's being unfairly treated.

Each person receives maybe 3,000 letters and the prison contacts the government asking for help in the situation and eventually the case is resolved.

This project saves many lives and is mainly supported by young people who send hundreds of cards to corrupt countries.

A prisoner released from the Domincan Republic wrote: ' When the first 200 letters came the guards gave me back my clothes. The next 200 arrived and the prison director came to see me. When the next pile arrived the director got in touch with his superior.

' The letters kept coming and coming, 3,000 of them. The president was informed. The letters still kept arriving and the president called the prison and told them to let me go.'

Once the corrupt dictators are brought out under the scrutiny of the world, they will often back down or modify their activities.

The letters that young people send really make a difference to the people in Iran, Pakistan and Columbia – all countries which have extremely unjust legal systems.

But it's not just overseas countries that benefit from the work young volunteers here in Ireland do. Look at the Simon Community.

They support people all over the country who don't have a place to call home.

This charity helps people from all backgrounds to get a home where they can look after their families in a safe and comfortable environment.

They rely on young people who go out and fix up the houses so that they are in a suitable condition for families to move in.

These young people volunteer their time to paint walls, source and move furniture, fit electrical appliances and make the place more than just a house – they make it a home.

If charities such as the Simon Community had to depend solely on people who required payment, then the charity wouldn't have the funds to pay for housing and accommodation for the people who are living on the streets, the people who really need it.

When asked, over 70% of young people said they help a charity in some kind of way, whether that's donating money on a regular basis or actually volunteering their time in a local charity shop or centre to help the community.

The majority of carers in care homes in the south east are students who give up their evenings and weekends to look after the elderly in their local areas. But they don't just do it for their own benefit, although it may look good on a CV. The young people who I spoke with do it because they enjoy helping and learn so much by going up and talking to the people who have grown up in a different time. One young girl, Maria Woods, 21, is studying medicine in college. But even with all the work she has to do, she finds the time to go to

the local hospice to help look after the people there.

She spoke of one case in particular where an elderly man who lived in France during World War II had lost all his family and was very ill with a matter of weeks to live.

He was in the hospice as he could no longer live at home alone and they wanted to make his last few weeks comfortable. Maria would go in every evening after college and after doing her duties, she would go in and talk to him, sometimes in French and others in English.

He told her stories of when he was a boy and how different life was then.

She listened to the horror stories of his life in the army during the war and shared his sorrow as he recalled how he lost everything he had, everyone he loved during those years when he was away fighting.

Every day she would hear a new story, a new memory that he would share with her. Her favourite story was that of how he had ended up in Ireland after 58 years in France.

He had been working at the ship yard and saw a small dog run on board a boat that was being prepared to set off.

He swiftly followed it in an attempt to retrieve it and after searching high and low for the dog, a miniature jack russell, he surfaced on deck, only to see the land slowly disappearing into the distance.

He didn't know where he was heading or how long it would take but he was always up for an adventure so settled down for the voyage with his new friend, Rusty.

A few hours later, they docked in Ireland and he headed onto land, planning to board the boat again in an hour to go back to France where he would tell of his adventures.

However, he wasn't allowed to board the ship as he didn't have a ticket and the authorities wouldn't let him travel. So he ended up settling in Ireland and after a rocky start, became very happy. He married again but his wife, Eimear, died 17 years after they married.

His health deteriorated in the years after her death and after a particularly bad dose of the flu, he was taken into a care home. And that was where Maria met him.

She spent most of her time with him and on the day he died, she sat by his bedside and held his hand.

At his funeral, the common burial for people in state care, only Maria and one other nurse stood beside the priest at the graveside. But Maria had made his last few weeks much happier and brighter.

He always smiled when she was around. If Maria hadn't given up her time and volunteered at the centre, who would have noticed him? Who would have taken the time to get to know him as a person, not just a number?

Young people really make a difference in the world of charity and volunteerism. It takes an open mind to change a life.

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