Gaf cafe keeps Galway teenagers off the streets


One of the most frustrating things about life as a teenager can be the boredom, says Daryl O'Regan (17), a secondary student in Salthill, Galway.

"There's nowhere to go after school," she says. "If you go to a coffee shop, you've to buy something to stay there. If you hang around the streets, you end up getting into trouble. Boredom is the biggest thing. That what fuels trouble."

With studies in the West highlighting worrying rates of drug and alcohol use among teenagers, a number of agencies came together to create an alternative space where young people could hang out, get involved in a range of activities, and access health services.

The result was the Gaf Youth Café on Galway's Francis Street, a drug and alcohol-free facility that is run and operated by young people.

While many projects aimed at young people are driven by what authorities think young people want, John Fitzmaurice, a 30-year-old former teacher and manager of the Gaf, says the key to its success is that teenagers are involved in every aspect of its activities.

They chose the interior (redolent of the cafe in Friends, with its big couches and warm colours), the courses (DJ training and photography are some of what's on offer) and are even involved in the management of the centre (through a 10-person committee).

"Young people get a lot of bad press, but we need to be realistic and look at what we're providing them," says Fitzmaurice. "If you provide a safe space where they want to hang out, you're taking away a lot of negative pressure to get involved in anti-social behaviour or drinking or whatever."

"The energy around here is amazing. Last Saturday we had 56 people here doing DJ workshops, playing guitars, chatting. Young people have a sense of ownership and control over a services."

The Gaf is open 35 hours a week and, as well as band nights, movies, drama and art courses, there is access to health services and education, such as sexual health programmes. It's a model which other communities around the country are interested in adopting, with similar cafes already up-and-running in places like Waterford, Dublin and Sligo.

For young people like Daryl, who is involved in the 10-person youth committee, the Gaf is also a place where you can learn a lot about responsibilities.

"Working on the committee you see that, along with all the fun, you have to put yourself into it, take on responsibilities. You get an idea of what its like being involved in the running of an organisation or business."