Meet the Belfast DJ who gave up spinning discs for celebrities to help young people turn their lives around
Karen McAlister mingled with the stars but gave up spinning records in order to head up the Simon Community's work with homeless teens
Right across Northern Ireland, hundreds of our young people are living rough, spending nights under bridges, in urban doorways, on friends' sofas and in disused buildings, having fallen on hard times.
In 2017, the numbers are rising, with 40% of those assisted by the Simon Community in Northern Ireland identified as 25 or under.
It's a problem that Karen McAlister is uniquely positioned to tackle, given her long and proactive involvement with social care over the past 20 years. Born and raised in Belfast, the 40-year-old rose through the ranks at VOYPIC, Voice of Young People in Care, and just over a year ago took up a new position with the Simon Community as Head of Service for Young People.
Clubbers will perhaps recognise Karen as the diminutive DJ behind the decks at 21 Social, where she was resident for five years until retiring in 2015 to dedicate her time and effort to "making a difference for young people".
"My love of social work and music started around the same time, when I had just turned 20," recalls Karen. "I started working officially for VOYPIC after volunteering as part of a team of young people who worked to set up the organisation back in 1993. I was passionate about ensuring that young people in care had a voice, an organisation that they could call their own, a trade union of sorts for children in care.
"I was one of the first young people who worked in VOYPIC, and that started a 19-year relationship - my longest to date."
All the while, she spun tunes, performing house music and at '80s nights as DJ Spikes and subsequently DJ Karen in venues across the city, including Tatu, La Lea, Irene and Nans, the Kremlin and Café Vaudeville. "DJing provided another avenue of expression for me, but in the end social work won out.
"Just before starting with Simon Community, and with my 40th birthday in sight, I decided that the day had come to finally hang up the headset. After DJing with many friends across many venues, I wanted to end on a high note. Over the years, I have played X Factor after parties, JLS private parties, movie and television wrap parties, the works. I still love music, but my big love is working with people and I'm able to do that with the Simon Community."
Karen grew up in north Belfast with her parents, Robert and Margaret, brother Colin and sister Rebecca. She attended St Dominic's Grammar School on the Falls Road and was drawn to social care through an interest in "human rights, children's rights, because I saw that young people, the most vulnerable people in our society, often didn't have a voice".
From volunteering with VOYPIC, she eventually led the organisation as assistant director. "But I had many roles, including development worker and advocacy manager. To me the opportunity that we had with VOYPIC was to be able to influence and change the care system, to be creative and responsive when talking to young people. If they identified a problem, our job was to fix it.
"The early part of my career was about ensuring that young people, the public and politicians alike understood what children in care faced, what their issues were and what they wanted to change. This saw me meet with public officials, Prime Ministers and even address the European Parliament in Strasbourg. I was able to start to build some change for young people here in Northern Ireland, and for me that is what I am most proud of."
When the Simon Community advertised for an all-new head of service for young people, Karen was not on the look-out for a new job. Rather, a friend sent her the job spec and 'it felt right'. "I felt that, building on my work in VOYPIC, I could make a difference and I got the job. VOYPIC was my first love and, as in all first break-ups, it was the hardest, so much so that even after three months in the Simon Community, if I said that my name was Karen and I was from the Simon Community, it felt like I was having an affair," she laughs.
Now Karen is in charge of strategic responsibility for young people at SCNI's 22 accommodation sites across Northern Ireland, including family sites.
"We have three specific young people sites that support young people on their journey to independence, those in care and those who are homeless. We have a huge youth homelessness problem in Northern Ireland. It is not okay to be homeless at 18. It is not okay at 18 to live in a hostel and think that no one cares about you. It is not okay to arrive at a hostel with just the clothes on your back."
Since beginning her work with the Simon Community, she has come into contact with young people from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland; Catholic and Protestant, immigrants, victims of abuse and individuals with learning disabilities. She has witnessed first-hand how one-to-one care can improve their lives and boost confidence as they work towards taking back control.
"Last week we had singer-songwriter Brian Kennedy visit one of our projects as part of Comic Relief, and as a result of his presence, a very quiet and shy young woman had the whole room singing along with her," she beams, "with Brian harmonising and staff playing guitar. It was fantastic.
"Amy, meanwhile, has been with us several months and had to leave home because of domestic abuse. When at home, she did not have any support but this changed when she came to the Simon Community. Getting support from both staff and other young people, having someone to talk to makes her feel good. Amy aspires to complete her health and social care qualifications and one day work for the Simon Community."
In another instance, she explains: "Stephen's mum passed away when he was 15. He went to live with his dad, who he didn't know, and was subsequently forced to live with a stranger, which didn't work, and then sofa-surfed with friends. Stephen had just turned 18 when he arrived at our Belfast Foyer Young Peoples Project just a week before Christmas.
"He never thought he would end up homeless. He went to a grammar school, he got good grades, he tried his best, was the smart one in his family, he wanted to go to university but it didn't work out that way. But he was determined to get his own place, get a job, and for him now, the only way is up.
"The young people that we work with, their sheer talent and resilience, their humour and their ability to help others, are constant inspirations. We support young people every day to move out on their own. That for me is the greatest thing we do, ensuring that young people have a place to call home."
Away from work, Karen continues to live in Belfast, having set down roots in the Ballyhackamore area in the east of the city. "I love the people in Belfast," she says. "The fun, the nightlife, the music. In Belfast, you're just minutes away from water, from Cavehill. It's a compact, friendly city with a big future."
She lives with her partner Nicola Johnston, a hairdresser whom she met seven years ago, "she was and still is my hairdresser" - and the two share their home with pet dog Roxy and cat Tiddy. Karen is also a keen runner and regularly takes part in triathlons in Ireland and elsewhere.
"So now," she adds, "instead of DJing at the weekends, I train for runs with Roxy. Although I have been running and competing in triathlons for a couple of years, and it's something I love to do, when talking about it now, it feels like a 40-thing."
Looking back over her career - from her driven, passionate teenage years combining music with advocacy and action, to her new role at the top of one of the UK's most successful and effective youth care charities - Karen is proud and pleased with the work she has done thus far.
"Young people stated they were not always listened to, so we developed a regional advocacy service," she points out. "They also said they wanted someone outside the care system to talk to and we developed mentoring services for them across Northern Ireland. I was lucky to be part of a team that grew an organisation from five employees to 50, supporting 75 volunteers every year and helping to make a difference in the lives of children in care."
Mentoring, Karen says, has played a big part in her own success, and is something that she hopes to provide for colleagues, friends, volunteers and children in care going forward.
"If you ask me to identify the one thing that makes a difference for young people, it is a relationship, someone who will believe in them, someone who will always be on their side, someone who has that ability to stick around. I am sure that we can all look back and identify that person in our own lives. For me, it was Mary Ryan, CEO at MACS, a true character with charisma, charm and someone who was always available for a coffee when I needed it. I'm truly grateful for her support."
These days, she is very much focused on the future - on her work with the Simon Community, her life in Belfast, her trusty pets and loving partner.
In the momentary calm between running from meeting to meeting, she finds a second to put it all in perspective and appreciate what her life has become.
"I have found that my new job is so rewarding," she adds. "I hope to support as many young people as I can on their journey to independence."