'At school my ADHD meant I couldn't concentrate and lacked confidence, but the right help transformed my life'
Belfast teenager Samantha Selfridge, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, explains how a project backed by the Big Lottery Fund has turned her into a role model for other young people with the condition.
School days were definitely not the best days of Samantha Selfridge's life. Now 19, the Belfast teenager recalls struggling to learn in lessons and experiencing a lack of understanding from many people due to her Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) when she was younger.
It's hard to believe that she had to overcome many obstacles to be the person she is now - an advocate for young people with ADHD and an active member of the ADD-NI's youth committee lobbying to help others like herself succeed in education, employment and life in general.
Samantha says, though, one of the biggest issues in her childhood was trying to understand ADHD herself.
"I could have done better if there had been more help and support, and understanding," she says. "I had none whatsoever, other than getting more time in exams. Even I could have benefited from understanding my own needs better."
All through school, Samantha found it difficult to concentrate on learning. Her Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder meant it was very difficult for her to control her focus, but most people didn't fully understand that.
She adds: "I didn't know then why my life was a struggle. Traditional school wasn't a good environment for my learning style and needs."
Despite an early diagnosis, Samantha knew little about ADHD and the impact it would have on her life.
"I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was really young, but I didn't really understand what it was, just that I was hyper. I wasn't able to listen properly in class. I'd just be looking out the window, not able to focus on what the teacher was saying," she says.
Because of the problems faced by Samantha, she is determined to help other young people. She is a member of the youth committee at ADD-NI's regional centre based in Belfast and helps to steer the organisation's Project 1 Eighty programme, which is funded by a £364,813 grant from Big lottery Fund's Empowering Young People programme.
And more Big Lottery Fund money means it is currently recruiting 10 young people aged 16-25 who are young carers, have learning disabilities or face barriers to learning and employment to help steer its Empowering Young People funding programme.
The young people who will be chosen will help make decisions on how to invest £50m of Lottery money. But would-be ambassadors need to be quick as the deadline to apply is Friday and all the details are available at the website at www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/YPIL.
Samantha is sharing her story in a bid to inspire other young people, no matter what their abilities or situation, to get involved in real decision making and ultimately improve life for others similar to herself.
She points out her early learning years were marred simply because there was a lack of understanding about her condition.
"I didn't have the confidence to ask for extra help, even if I had known what help I needed, so my memories of school are of feeling sad and frustrated," she says. "I started working on two GCSEs at school but was taken out of them as I wasn't doing well. Technical college was better for me than school.
"It was more relaxed and it was easier to ask the tutor for help. I found things were explained in a way that suited me better."
She knows there are many obstacles ahead for young people whose circumstances are slightly different to the norm, adding: "After I got a Level 3 BTech Extended diploma in IT, I tried to search for a job but I wasn't getting accepted anywhere. Lack of confidence and experience are the biggest problems, and I think a lot of the time when you have a learning disability or ADHD, you have to show you can do a job before employers will believe you are capable enough."
Then two years ago, Samantha was introduced to ADD-NI by her older sister, whose son was also diagnosed with ADHD.
"I didn't even know about the service until then. I found out they had a programme for young people funded by the Big Lottery Fund and I signed up," she says.
The project, which is funded with a Big Lottery Fund grant from the Empowering Young People programme, helps young people with ADHD achieve their potential with a range of educational and practical courses and other support.
"I did the intensive six-week psycho-education programme for young people and that changed everything for me. It helped me to understand my condition, and develop strategies to cope. It also helped me identify my strengths and taught me who to ask for help," she says.
Samantha also attended young adult support meetings and ADD-NI's post intervention service, later moving onto to ADD-NI's youth committee to help steer its youth programme.
"When I went to my first young adult support meeting at the centre, it was like a light went on. I knew so little about my condition, and connecting with the support group was like discovering a new ability," she says.
"Now I see friends who have the same challenges as me every week or two. We all learn and communicate differently and we are all able to share ideas that might help us learn better."
Samantha also volunteers at the ADD-NI charity shop on Belfast's Lisburn Road, Attention to Detail, in order to build up experience and give something back, and to try to change public perception of the condition.
The determined young woman has become a role model for the younger members at ADD-NI and gives them guidance and support. She was involved with the ADD-NI summer scheme and put together the final presentation ceremonies to mark the younger kids' achievements.
She and the youth committee also worked on putting together an art and photography exhibition at Belfast City Hall in September called ADHD Has Many Faces. Samantha helped compile a DVD for this exhibition and gave a speech at the launch of the exhibition.
The ADD-NI youth committee, including Samantha, agreed a manifesto for young people with ADHD and launched it at the Long Gallery at Stormont in November, with Samantha speaking at the event about how ADD-NI has helped her.
"It was out of my comfort zone and I was really nervous, but it went great," she says. "I'm more confident in public speaking now and in everyday life. My self-esteem has changed. I know now what I'm good at and how I learn best.
"At ADD-NI we aren't just given a token role. A lot of young people come in thinking they can never achieve much because of their ADHD, but at the centre, we show ourselves and others that we can do things and make a difference."
Sarah Salters, the director of ADD-NI, says: "Here at the ADDNI centre the young people are not judged or blamed for having ADHD, they can be themselves when here and feel comfortable in their own skin.
"I have been so impressed with Samantha. She has a bright and bubbly character, but she struggled so much for many years.
"Samantha has a hugely positive attitude to ADHD, she has supported and encouraged other young people she has met during her time at ADD-NI immensely.
"She has a lot of gifts and abilities that have been able to shine through in our youth programme.
"She's a gifted photographer and has a real knack with technical work.
"Samantha works in our new Attention to Detail charity shop on the Lisburn Road. She is the most reliable volunteer we have, and is always pleasant and helpful with customers. She is very kind and committed and a great role model and mentor for our younger members.
"In the two and a half years that I've known her, her self-confidence has grown.
"She is now able to put herself forward for things and show initiative. Samantha has a bright future."
- If you want to be one of the 10-strong group of young people to sit on the Empowering Young People programme visit the link http://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/YPIl by Friday