"The greatest message we can give to young people is that they always have a choice and you can always do something to change a situation." - Gerry McDonald, Foróige's Head of Training who has worked with young people for over 30 years

Foróige's picture
Foróige September 30, 2014

Read our interview with Gerry McDonald, Foróige's Head of Training. Gerry has worked with young people in Foróige for over 30 years. Gerry will retire later on this year and has carried out exceptional youth work throughout his career. He has championed youth participation and non-formal education. In this interview, Gerry shares anecdotes and words of wisdom for young people, volunteers and youth workers. It is an inspiring piece and everyone can take something from it.

What was your background before you started working with Foróige?

I had a completely different background, I was an electrical engineer. I worked in Telecom Eireann designing electrical systems. It was a massive contrast. I’m not sure exactly how long I have been working with Foróige, it’s over 30 years. Maybe 33 or 34. I was involved in voluntary work. I worked with Peter McVerry but also I remember reading a book about education by a guy called Paulo Freire who taught literacy in South America and his view of education was just so revolutionary. His view was that it’s all about dialogue and communication and it’s not just to consume knowledge but it’s about educating yourself to change your life and the world around you. It’s an everyday thing that involves dialogue and other things and that inspired me and I thought I would love to get involved in that kind of education somewhere.

I was about 25/26 and I did see that the job I was in – which was fine – was limiting with regard to any vocational thing I wanted to do and I was in the job for a few years you know. For a while it was satisfying but then it got boring and I got into a very administrative role as well. So I was thinking about it for a while and then I left the job for a year and did a Diploma in Adult Education.

It took me about two years to leave the steady, secure job in the P and T. That was a hard thing to do and talking to other people I was involved with through volunteering just gave me a whole different perspective on education. And I saw the potential of it for adults and young people and it wasn’t just schooling, it wasn’t just what Freire called the ‘banking concept’ which is that the knowledge is in the bank and you can go in and you pay for it and you get the knowledge out...it’s about a lot more than that.

It was a very difficult decision to make. I didn’t initially have the courage to leave a secure civil service job. People were saying “You’re mad, Gerry” and a lot worse. But it was in me and the people I hung around with were talking the same way. They gave me the courage to get up and walk out the door and I think it took over two years to get that courage but I eventually did it. It was completely stepping into the unknown and taking a big chance. And it was scary. There was pressure from my parents, they were proud of me as an engineer. But it was me as well, I just wasn’t very secure.

I think you have to follow that burning idea or inspiration and I think that’s the secret. It probably has been the secret of my career because I was passionate about what I did, you know. And you have to follow it. I’m not saying you have to be absolutely reckless but you need to take a risk as well. And don’t be afraid to take a risk. Maybe a calculated one! It is a part of a person’s development. If it works out, it’s great but if it doesn’t, it is good for your development as a person. You will die if you stay safe and sound. If I hadn’t done it...looking back on the whole thing, there is one simple question. Was it good for me? And the answer is a resounding yes. I hate to think what would have happened to me if I hadn’t done it, just sitting there festering! I would encourage people to follow what is in their heart and to go with it, they have to.

Gerry, you have a depth of knowledge and experience that has been years in the making. Are there any insights you have about working with young people that you would like to share with volunteers and youth workers? 

I remember when I had a youth group on a weekend and we were staying over in a hostel. There was a group of American tourists and the young people were slagging off the tourists and messed up the kitchen and I was called in to see the Reverend Mother who was in charge. I said to the young people, “You got yourselves into this mess, you can get yourselves out of it.” This may sound harsh but I also said, “Oh by the way, I have every faith in you.” They did it famously, had everyone eating out of their hand. I just stood back and watched and enjoyed it. They were on their own now and they were at their almighty best. One guy said, “I can do a seanchaí!” and the Americans lapped it up, they had big smiles on their faces. The Reverend Mother ended up asking me for some advice around working with young people. I had achieved status on the shoulders of the young people! That sort of challenge is good. Believe me they will come up with the goods. Very often we might think, “Oh, I don’t want to put them under pressure...”, but sometimes it can be a good thing. It can be the thing that makes them.

It’s important for parents and volunteers to stop the urge to rush in and fix things. If a young person asks you a question, never answer it if you think they can figure it out themselves. Throw it back onto them. “What’s your view on that? What do you want to see happen?” At that age, that’s what they need. Or issues in the club, like discipline. They have the capacity to solve those problems themselves. You put it back onto them. I have often been stunned when you put it to a group of young people together, the results they come up with. They often don’t get the opportunity to do that because so much is done for them.

Do you perceive young people nowadays as being different to the young people you worked with at the beginning of your career?

I think young people today are more outward. In the beginning they were quieter. Young people are now are so connected on the internet and have so much savvy in this area. They could give you classes on technology. This gives them many ways of gaining knowledge and being connected to each other. They have so many opportunities now that were undreamt of before.

From working with young people I think they still have similar needs to when I started out. They still need good human contact with adults where they are encouraged and affirmed. They may be overtly confident but at a deeper level they may not be. I know that there is so much social media now which has many positives but direct human contact is critical especially with adults.

I said earlier that young people need that safe space to talk with others and share their views and concerns and most importantly to be listened to. I think this is more needed today than before. It is easier in the modern electronic age for young people to get isolated and devoid of real quality human contact (that is not digital). There are lots of extra pressures today and the opportunity to talk and be listened to is a vital need – now more than ever.

Formal education may not meet this need. I think of the Tommy Tiernan joke about the school exam. The exam question is, “1916 is a very important part of Ireland’s history. Discuss.” Tommy Tiernan asks, “With who?” Young people really do want to discuss – not so much exams questions but what is important to them.

Also, with the education system now being so developed, wonderful that it is with so many opportunities, many young people can be in a protected environment well into their twenties. They therefore need more outlets to express their newfound adult abilities and to make their contribution. That is why Foróige is so important.

Young people may easily get overwhelmed by modern day pressures. They can easily get frustrated and can repress a lot. The greatest message we can give to young people is that they always have a choice and you can always do something to change a situation. We need to help them see these possibilities. Act upon the world,- don’t have the world act upon you. I’d love as many young people as possible to understand that and to learn that way of thinking.

Was there anyone who inspired you in your youth work career?

I think there were a lot of people who inspired me. Some volunteers inspired me due to their belief in Foróige and their vision for young people. I learned a lot when I started out first. I was working with a volunteer up in Cavan and I was working on a programme for the young people. I was getting quite technical about it and I think he was getting a bit fed up and he said, “For me it’s not about the programme at all, it’s when some young person in the group realises that they can influence what is going on and what they do matters and counts and they have an impact.” It stuck with me ever since and that’s about 30 years ago.

I am also inspired by young people themselves. I have seen so many young people, when given the opportunity, really shine and produce great ideas that made a big difference to the organisation. One such group is called the Reference Panel which I will talk about later.

Do you remember any young people specifically who changed during their time with Foróige?

It’s interesting, when I was a Youth Officer you’d always have parents coming to you going, “What is going on with Johnny, he wouldn’t open his mouth before but now he’s full of chat! After a year in Foróige, he is much more open.” I have seen a lot of young people whose head would be down, they’d hardly open their mouth, they would be nervous. As time goes by you see them up speaking, they have confidence in themselves. I have seen a lot of that.

I have seen young people really grow and develop when their misbehaviour was challenged in the right way. I remember a young person arriving at one of your summer youth gatherings. He had a lot of drink taken. He hadn’t even the presence of mind to avoid me! I was reluctant to send him home as there were problems there. So I had a real man to man chat with him challenging him very firmly but giving him space to respond. Young guys love the real man to man stuff, they want to be men. After a man to man agreement on which we both had to shake hands he got involved fully in the gathering. You could see him grow and mature. He came back to the same gathering for the next two years, On the last one he was the main man and one of the most prominent figures. Years later I was in Sligo for a conference and went into the hotel and someone turned around, saying I won’t ever forget that voice. It was my friend. He was doing a Social Studies course in Sligo. I have often seen great changes if young people are communicated with in the right way.

Are there golden moments that will always stay with you?

The biggest golden moments have really been with the Reference Panel. The Reference Panel are the national youth representative body in Foróige. There are many examples of golden moments with that group of wonderful young people. Working with them has been a true labour of love. For example last year, they had a conference on the subject of positive self image and at the end they spontaneously stood up on the chairs singing the song “Express Yourself” It reminded me of the last scene in a film ‘Dead Poets Society’. Hopefully it came spontaneously from them. To see them standing up on the chairs singing that song and expressing that they were celebrating being individuals without fear was a golden moment and one of many.

What are you most proud of from your time working with Foróige?

I’m proud of the work I did on the purpose and philosophy of the organisation in the early days and to see that still in use in the organisation years later. Just being able to express those ideas and get them across. Another thing that came from that was the Citizenship Programme structure of Awareness, Action and Evaluation. I put together that model and it is still there.

With all the changes that have happened, those models are still there. The few courses I have done and again, coming back to the young people of the Reference Panel. What they have done, what they have achieved, I am very proud of them. Someone asked me how long the Reference Panel is going and to be honest I don’t know, it was there before me. It would have been in the 70’s. Youth Participation is a big thing now but it wasn’t in those days.

How has Foróige changed down through the years?

Foróige has grown so much. It’s in areas it never was before. Doing things like NFTE and Big Brother Big Sister, it has grown incredibly. It’s a big organisation now and it’s great to see it grow so much. I believe that something like Foróige is so necessary for people of that age. It’s actually a necessary part of development, everybody should have it. Every young person should have the experience that Foróige provides, you know. It’s good to see more young people involved in it. My wish would be that what Foróige provides for young people would be available for everybody.

What words of wisdom do you have for the young people of Ireland?

Believe in yourself. Believe in your own uniqueness as a person. Very often there are pressures around you telling you that you’re not anybody unless you have this or you have that. In the end you have to affirm yourself. Don’t worry about being perfectly normal, that doesn’t exist. As someone on the Reference Panel said this year, “Uniqueness is the new normal.” Not to be worrying too much about what other people think. To find that part of yourself that is yours. What you’re passionate about, what you love in life. What you want to do with your life. To get in touch with that. And it takes hard work to find that. But it is worth finding.

Another thing I would say to young people is, don’t compare yourself to someone else. Because usually when you do that you put yourself in an unfavourable light. I’m not saying don’t be influenced by others. I am saying be inspired by others. Don’t get into comparison. Because there’s only one you in the world and there will never be another. Ever. If you demean that by worrying why you’re not like somebody else, that can weaken you. Believe in your own uniqueness. Sometimes that involves taking risks. But find something that you truly love and are passionate about and look at the unique contribution you can make. That’s the contribution that nobody can make except you.

The other side of it is to connect with others. Have fun with others. Friends, someone you can talk to. Whether it’s an adult, a good friend, someone you can talk with about your life. Build connections with your community and have true friends, not the kind of people who want you to be like themselves. Or people that put you down.

What tips would you give to a youth worker who is just starting out?

I think of a story of a young leader who when they went into a club first, the kids were running all over the place and she stood next to the wall, afraid to leave the wall. What she did then was that she just started talking to one or two young people beside her - then one or two more until her contact with them grew. She got to know the young people and they got to know her. This is what made the difference.

So what I would say is, get to know the young people. Just talk to them, play games with them. This might be nerve wracking for you but they are just as nervous. So just build those connections. Even with a small group of them. Talk about anything. The football match last week, school, anything. In this way they see you as a person and not some authority figure. Building trust. I think that is the start of it. Build the relationship and then you can encourage them to do things. The rest will follow.

I would also strongly recommend that you attend the Foroige volunteer training programmes. These greatly improve your understanding, your skills and your confidence.

The final thing I would say is “believe in yourself". Some leader may start out thinking they don’t have anything to contribute to young people but they do. Even if it just their presence, they absolutely do have something to contribute. Young people often need that simple presence and that connection with adults. They may communicate the opposite but believe me the need is there.

I believe strongly that leaders are educators. It doesn’t mean that you are standing in front of a class giving a talk. It does mean that you are talking with young people, encouraging them, drawing out their potential and all the time looking for opportunities through which they can grow and develop. It is education for the broad personal development of the young person and it is so important.

You will never fully know the influence they have on a young person. It could be some little thing that you do that makes a big difference in their lives and in the way they see themselves. It could be something that a young person never forgets. You are not just there to open the door and supervise the kids. You are significant adults in their lives. You are actual educators that can help young people to develop in a very important way.