Meet the teenage social innovators changing the narrative

Lazy and entitled? Not these millennials, whose projects display concern for others

Students from St Leo’s College, Convent of Mercy in Carlow won third prize at the Young Social Innovators for their project on raising awareness around domestic violence

Students from St Leo’s College, Convent of Mercy in Carlow won third prize at the Young Social Innovators for their project on raising awareness around domestic violence

 

Young people nowadays often get criticised for being narcissistic, entitled and self-involved.

But take a look at the range of projects developed by Transition Year students throughout Ireland in the Young Social Innovators competition and you’ll quickly realise that empathy and social consciousness are prominent traits in this generation of teenagers.

This year’s award ceremony celebrated the achievements of 6,400 teenagers who submitted more than 400 projects to create positive change within their communities.

Climate action, safety at sea, sexual consent and inclusive sports were just some of the themes explored.

We realised that parking in disabled drivers’ spaces was something that happened a lot but that wasn’t talked about, which made us angry

“The inspirational projects developed and worked on throughout the year-long programme exemplify how Ireland’s young people are contributing to the improvement of society at large and the shaping of a fairer, more equal and sustainable world,” says Young Social Innovators co-founder and CEO Rachel Collier.

Tackling misuse of disabled parking

The 2020 winners, from Cashel Community School in Co Tipperary, created awareness of the misuse of parking spaces designated for disabled people.

The students carried out surveys to understand why and who misuses these parking spaces and even developed a prototype for a sensor which would alert ineligible drivers that they were parking in a space reserved for disabled drivers.

“We realised that parking in disabled drivers’ spaces was something that happened a lot but that wasn’t talked about, which made us angry.

“People said they were ‘only going into the bank’ or that they ‘thought it was only used by day’ which was a prejudice that disabled drivers wouldn’t be using the spaces at night-time,” says Heather Barnett, one of the TY students on the winning project.

Colin Harding, another student on the winning team, explains that with the help of the school’s engineering department, the students developed a prototype for a sensor which would emit a sound or light to alert drivers to being in a designated disabled drivers’ parking space.

We wanted to promote good mental health by giving students a chance to connect and talk to other students they didn’t know

This device – which the team is hoping to use their prize money to develop further with the University of Limerick – is deactivated by scanning the barcode on the Blue Badge [the EU parking permit issued by the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland on behalf of the Department of Transport].

The students from Cashel Community College also discovered that counterfeit blue badges were being used by some drivers and that even those who had authentic blue badges had to pay for the badges, which they thought was unfair.

As well as developing their prototype, the students are keen to assist in a national awareness campaign on the misuse of parking spaces for disabled drivers.

Students of Cashel Community School, Jasmine McCabe, Heather Barnett, Conor Hassett, Colin Harding, and David Spearman along with TY co-ordinator Maria Neavyn and teacher Caitriona Ryan receiving their Young Social Innovators Gold award for their project entitled ‘Step Up For Accessibility’, aimed at tackling the misuse of parking spaces for disabled people. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene
Students of Cashel Community School, Jasmine McCabe, Heather Barnett, Conor Hassett, Colin Harding, and David Spearman along with TY co-ordinator Maria Neavyn and teacher Caitriona Ryan receiving their Young Social Innovators Gold award for their project entitled ‘Step Up For Accessibility’, aimed at tackling the misuse of parking spaces for disabled people. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene

Boosting physical and mental health

Students from Newtown School in Waterford City won the second prize in the 2020 Young Social Innovators awards for their Newtown Games, Community Gains project, which sought to improve the physical and mental health of local people of all ages.

The wide-ranging project includes fundraising for a trishaw bike (a push bicycle which has a seat at the front for two people) to bring residents from local nursing homes out in the fresh air, a cross-country “splash and dash” running and swimming day for primary school children and a pop-up “Connect Cafe” in their school.

“We were passionate about physical and mental health and worked with the Healthy Waterford initiative,” explains Emer McMahon from Newtown School.

Eight Transition Year students did a barista course so they could serve coffees and teas in the pop-up school café.

“We wanted to promote good mental health by giving students a chance to connect and talk to other students they didn’t know. We hope the new TY students will keep this up,” says Rachel McGuinness.

The students believe these informal opportunities to chat could enhance the student listener programme, in which certain 4th, 5th and 6th year students are designated peer listeners that any student can approach for a quick chat throughout the school day.

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, the team’s plans to put on their Dance for Life show at the Theatre Royal in aid of the Solas Cancer Support Centre had to be cancelled.

Students from Newtown School in Waterford won second prize in the 2020 Young Social Innovators awards for their project which sought to improve the physical and mental health of local people of all ages.
Students from Newtown School in Waterford won second prize in the 2020 Young Social Innovators awards for their project which sought to improve the physical and mental health of local people of all ages.

Tackling domestic violence

The Loud Silence Behind Closed Doors is the provocative title of the project from St Leo’s College, Convent of Mercy in Carlow which won third prize at the Young Social Innovators awards for 2020.

When searching for a theme, the students at St Leo’s realised that Carlow Women’s Aid, which was right next door to the college, was under threat of closure.

The Young Social Innovators programme empowers young people to create meaningful change on a whole range of issues through student-led engagement

“So we organised a petition with 1,000 signatures highlighting the importance of having local supports for women and children experiencing domestic violence,” explains Edel Colgan.

Aware of the sensitive nature of these issues, the teachers organised workshops for the students run by Barnardos and the Carlow Women’s Aid manager and counsellor.

The students also took part in the 16 days of action campaign opposing violence against women. And through their lobbying work with local politicians, Carlow Women’s Aid managed to secure commitment for two emergency accommodation units for victims of domestic abuse in Carlow town.

Sheila Cody, a Young Social Innovators guide at St Leo’s College, says this is an example of how real, significant change can happen as a result of these projects.

“The Young Social Innovators programme empowers young people to create meaningful change on a whole range of issues through student-led engagement,” she says.

Boosting confidence

All the students I speak to after the awards ceremony talk about how partaking in the programme made them feel more confident and able to speak up in public about issues that are important to them.

The programme includes “speak up” events where the students present their projects to others as well as a Dragon’s Den-style project presentation.

Minister for Education Norma Foley is also a fan of this type of learning outside the formal curriculum.

The future is not something provided for you, but something you create

“I think it’s a phenomenal testament to the determination, the expertise and enthusiasm of teachers, that they’re prepared to go outside the general curriculum to involve themselves in extra-curricular activities that will benefit their students,” she said.

Needless to say, enthusiastic teachers are crucial to the whole endeavour, and the Young Social Innovators programme celebrates “schools of excellence” and committed and inspirational teachers annually with their “Let Them Shine” awards.

Previous winners, including a team from Portmarnock Community School which made the first detailed online map of the Kingdom of Lesotho, also spoke about how partaking in the Young Social Innovators programme was one of the things they were most proud of – and often spoke about at job interviews.

As President Michael D Higgins, who is the patron of the non-profit organisation, puts it: “The future is not something provided for you, but something you create.”

And Joe O’Brien, the Minister of State for Community Development and Charities, who spoke at the award ceremony, also had words of encouragement for future entrants.

“Every challenge we face can be conquered by the ability to look at it differently and bring energy to it.”

With Transition Year of 2020/2021 still being impacted by the global pandemic, it will be interesting to see what social innovations Covid-19 will prompt in this year’s TY students.

See also youngsocialinnovators.ie