Fortnite is keeping teenagers from falling through the cracks
During Covid-19, Core in Inchicore is staying connected to its young charges via video games
Thomas McCarthy of Core in his bicycle workshop
Right now, Thomas McCarthy’s day job partly involves playing video games online for hours a day. He’s not very good at these games, he says. He’s doing it to keep in touch with the kids he works with in his real job, as a youth worker at the Core Youth Service in Inchicore.
At Core they deal with about 200 young people. McCarthy’s official title is “skills-based co-ordinator”. He is funded via the local drug and alcohol task force and works specifically with young people considered to be at risk of drug addiction and associated risks such as early school-leaving, crime and gang grooming . He has a list of about 30 kids, he says. “All are at risk.”
They’re mad for the bikes... But the bikes are just a tool to get the young people in the door
Durin the lockdown, he has kept in touch with them by getting them together for Fifa, Fortnite and Zoom sessions with him and another youth worker, where they talk as they play. He contacted me when there was heavy media coverage of the Leaving Cert – a conversation that was not relevant to the young people he works with.
Before the crisis, his job involved a combination of outreach “street work” and group work at Core’s youth centre. At Core there’s a bright recreational space with pool tables and table tennis tables where young people can just hang out. They also established a workshop and find that getting the kids into fixing and building bikes is another crucial way to get them engaged.
“They’re mad for the bikes . . I’ve built about 20 fixies at this stage. We do six- or seven-week programmes with them. [But] the bikes are just a tool to get the young people in the door.”
Cycling is huge for these kids. Core has a fleet of mountain bikes, a trailer and a minibus and the youngsters regularly go for cycles through the Phoenix Park. They sometimes go for longer trips. They’ve gone to the Achill Greenway in Co Mayo a couple of times, and last year a group of them went to Morocco to undertake bike workshops with kids who had even less than they do. They have also participated in jiu jitsu, rugby and football programmes, and McCarthy runs a “reduce the use” programme to help young people with habitual drug use.
Doing activities like this creates a low-pressure space where kids can speak about their feelings or worries with trustworthy adults like McCarthy. A lot of what they do is about keeping kids in some form of education. Some of these kids end up getting expelled.
“We try holding them in a learning space with tutors and skills programmes until they can go back into school,” says McCarthy. “I spent a whole day yesterday talking to teachers and home school liaisons. The schools are saying that they’re sending [homework] home. Some kids aren’t doing it. Other kids don’t have the resources – good wifi or laptops. We understand there needs to be a focus on the Leaving Cert but the kids we have hanging on by the fingernails are the ones that will drop out. Five or six months of no schoolwork is a long time for very disadvantaged kids who need directed learning.”
The movie this week was Michael Inside, about a kid who went to prison because of the choices he made
Without these activities and a safe place to go, McCarthy worries about them. Consequently, he’s goggle-eyed from playing Fortnite while simultaneously minding his young daughter. “Are you talking to your young people?” she asks when I call.
Staff at Core are attempting everything they can think of to keep the kids connected. The week I ring they held a St Pat’s football club-themed quiz night on Zoom with the help of a community worker at St Pat’s. They also hold film nights where they watch a film followed by a quiz about the film (the winner gets a pizza sent to their home). “The movie this week was Michael Inside, about a kid who went to prison because of the choices he made. We pick films that would have an impact. Everything we do is messaging.”
He talks generally about the kids, careful that he doesn’t identify or stigmatise any of them. Some have parents with drug issues. Others have very supportive families but have been led astray by peers. Some are in unsuitable accommodation that is very difficult to quarantine in.
He mentions an undocumented family where a 19-year-old child of addicts has been left to look after her younger siblings in unsuitable homeless accommodation. “We get food delivered for them every Friday, just something to look forward to. It’s the most compassionate thing we can do. The oldest is in college. Her sister was doing the Junior Cert. We also got them a laptop and some old tablets so they could study.”
All we’re doing at the moment is holding them, giving them something to get involved in, trying to keep a connection
Not all of these young people are socially isolating, he says.
“I was going out to Lidl the other day and drove past five or six of the young people I work with.”
For some, he says, “it’s safer outside than inside because there’s violence and toxicity in the house.”
McCarthy is worried. “All we’re doing at the moment is holding them, giving them something to get involved in, trying to keep a connection. But [the lockdown] is undermining everything that we’ve done.
So the video games are necessary, he says. “If you ask a direct question, they get emotional and get uncomfortable and don’t talk to you. If you’re playing Fifa or Fortnite and you have them on the headset you can start a bit of a conversation. A young person rarely rings you up directly to tell you something is wrong. They start with something else and they get to it. I’ve been working four or five years with some of them; the relationship has got to a point where they talk about anything.”
He has to think about each young person’s individual needs. Some struggle with boredom. Some with loneliness. Some with diet issues. There’s one kid that the others won’t play with.
“He’s always on his own and gets isolated even on the internet. It’s very sad when you think of it. We play together as a team. We have a bit of crack slagging each other but there’s always an underlying current of what I’m trying to achieve, a conversation about what’s going on in their life and offering support. I might be playing for two or three hours. I’m wrecked after it.”
Is it hard to explain to his family that this is actually work?
He laughs. “It’s hard to explain to myself, sometimes.”
Core values: the kids in the programme
15-year-old Michael lives with his father, his grandmother and uncle. He’s been going to Core since he was 11 and has built his own bike at the bike workshops. He misses football and he misses the youth centre. “There’s pool tables and a ping-pong table . . . You miss it when it’s closed. You can drop in and have a chat with Thomas any time there’s something on your mind. He helps us to keep on the straight road.” But, says Michael, McCarthy is “very bad at Fortnite. I have to help him with everything.”
April is 19 and recently left the care system. She lives in Tallaght now and is studying animal welfare in Dún Laoghaire but, inspired by the people she has met at Core, she has decided to do a course in youth and community development in Liberties College. In more normal times she cycles from Tallaght to Dún Laoghaire and then to Inchicore to volunteer at the youth service. She’s a junior leader on the bike programme and went on the bike programme’s trip to Morocco last year.
“If I didn’t have those supports and services, I’d not be the same person. You might feel really alone and have no one to confide in [and] 90 per cent of the time they say, ‘Let’s sort it out.’ They dissect a problem and help find a solution. A lot of people are missing out on a lot of supports now because of the lockdown.”
Fifteen-year-old Mark lives with his mother, his younger brother and his twin brother. They were playing Fortnite with McCarthy before I call. What do they talk about? “He asks what’s going on a daily basis and he asks are we doing our homework.”
Is Mark doing his homework? “They’re sending me work to do on the laptop but I can’t do it because I’ve got no laptop. Thomas rang the school and told them.”
He misses the bike programme. He went on a cycling trip to Achill Island last year. What did he like about it? “The views. The mountains.”
Colm is 16 and is getting very tired of the lockdown. “In my opinion I think things need to go back to normal. I miss going down to the boys at the youth project, messing and playing football.”
He lives with his mother and two younger siblings and has been going to Core since he was 11. “It changed my perspective on people. I used laugh at people – now I feel sympathy for them.”
McCarthy helped him get enrolled in a different one where things are going well. He can talk to McCarthy, he says. “I trust him. But I also slag him and he slags me back... He comes out with freaky shit. He’s gas. I called him last Sunday. Thomas doesn’t work on a Sunday but he was still there. He still picked up the phone.”
Core Youth Service is open to donations, including donations of laptops and tablets.