First, let’s think about what we mean by ‘rural’. The areas that the Dornoch Firth Group (DFG) work in are not nice tree lined areas, just outside big towns and cities; or the ‘countryside’ a bus ride away; we’re talking about remote and isolated communities where transport is sketchy and young people have to travel many miles to get to school, or anywhere else. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Scottish Government Studies into employment, out-migration and poverty, have used the following definition: “traditional rural areas that are geographically isolated and have significant economic activity in the agricultural sector” and for the purposes of this article, the description fits.
In practice this means that young people in the countryside “face a number of uniquely rural barriers” The Commission for Rural Communities published a report in 2009 which warned of these difficulties, notably in accessing transport, careers advice, training support and other services. The cost of fuel and reliance on cars, is a big factor in young people struggling to stay in education, and later find a job. Both lack of employment and under employment are big issues. There is also a greater risk that the more vulnerable young people located within smaller pockets of deprivation, of which there are a number in Sutherland, are less likely to receive the support they may need.
The image of a young person glued to a mobile phone, is de-facto in the popular media, but in rural areas mobile signal can be patchy, and internet unreliable. 3G networks are non-existent here. Rural young people can feel even more socially isolated than their peers in other areas, not only because of geographic remoteness, but lack of services and facilities. Transport is a huge challenge and young people are often forced to rely on ‘Mum and Dad’s taxi’ leading to a lack of independence and subsequent frustrations. In small communities everyone knows everyone else, and there’s a lack of space for young people to be ‘private’ and separate. There are limited opportunities for decision making and fewer opportunities for work. . Housing is inadequate, and young people are forced to live with their families, with little prospect of moving, unless out of the area. Inevitably many young people do leave the areas where they were born to take education, work and housing opportunities in other places.
If this picture looks rather grim, my apologies! I am trying to give realistic depiction of some of the challenges the young people we work with face. As a small local charity we can’t hope to tackle every challenge faced and change outcomes overnight. What we provide is a safe and positive environment where young people can meet. The venues are in the villages where many people can walk to, and where we can collect others if necessary.
We run two ‘youth cafes’ in the local area, each with a different focus. The Dornoch café was set up to provide a venue for young lads ‘hanging about’ on a Friday night. We provide a warm shelter, with hot chocolate, and the opportunity to play pool, or other games, and ‘chill out’ without being chilled through! We have built relationships with the lads over the period we’ve been operating, and have seen changes in attitude from the local community. There’s little open in Dornoch in the evening, and certainly nothing much for young people to do, who don’t want to belong to uniformed organisations, or play a sport. Our small venture, along with a monthly youth club (which attracts a different group of young people) is all there is. It’s a first step on a long road to providing the sort of input and support that the young people there need.
In Bonar Bridge, the situation is different, in that the young people themselves requested a youth activity. There’s already a local youth bus project, which attracts mainly younger people, and is out of town. By using a local central resource, and working with an older age-range, we are able to offer something distinctive for young people to engage with. This is a new venture, and it’s early days, with numbers fluctuating week on week, but we are providing a space where young people can interact with each other in a positive and encouraging environment, away from parents, outside of school, without having to travel. We have lots of plans and ideas for the group, but ultimately the group will be what the young people want and need it to be. Somewhere they can relax, meet and make friends, and access the support they need to be able to engage with the local and wider community.
I can’t tell you of the fantastic feats we’ve achieved, and that life for young people in our rural communities is less challenging, but I can tell you that we are advocating on their behalf, and encouraging them to advocate for themselves. We are helping to reduce social isolation, and build the confidence and hope that can be lacking when young people know that things are stacked against them. We are engaging, and positive that our young people are wanting to engage with us. We have an enthusiastic, energetic youth worker, and great volunteers, who are enjoying the opportunity to be involved, and make a difference to the lives of a bunch of amazing local young people. Watch this space.
For more info: http://www.dornochfirthgroup.com