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Why giving money to Pudsey is a lifeline for girls in need

Published 13/11/2015

Making an impression: social worker Dearbhaile O’Hagan
Making an impression: social worker Dearbhaile O’Hagan
Social worker Dearbhaile O’Hagan at the Women’s Footprint Centre located in Poleglass, Belfast
Social worker Dearbhaile O’Hagan at the Women’s Footprint Centre located in Poleglass, Belfast
Social worker Dearbhaile O’Hagan at the Women’s Footprint Centre located in Poleglass, Belfast

As BBC Children In Need gears up for tonight's marathon fundraising TV event, Una Brankin talks to social worker Dearbhaile O'Hagan from Lurgan about her vital work with young women in Belfast.

When the news broke recently of a 12-year-old Belfast girl's pregnancy, it sent shockwaves throughout the country.

The child's dilemma emerged two months after a 30-year-old from the north of the city became one of the youngest grandmothers in the UK and Ireland, when her 14-year-old daughter gave birth to a baby girl by her 17-year-old boyfriend.

These headline-grabbing stories were met with less surprise in some deprived areas of Belfast, where early teenage pregnancy is not unusual. And thanks to the BBC's Children In Need, the Footprints Women's Centre in Poleglass had an initiative already in motion to deal with the issue - potentially saving dozens of young girls from the same predicament.

"There are a lot of teenage pregnancies in the area and we are very focused on reducing risk-taking behaviour," says Dearbhaile O'Hagan (26), a social worker with the centre. "We had a programme in place, supported by specialist agencies, when the article first appeared about the 12-year-old girl's pregnancy, which gave us the means to answer the questions that arose around it.

"We give advice on contraception and consent, and break down some of the myths regarding pregnancy, in a fun way, over food and a chat. We find that approach works well in all areas, including specialist programmes for drug and alcohol problems."

A BBC Children in Need grant of over £112,000 to Footprints Women's Centre funds the three-year Family Empowerment Worker post held by Dearbhaile. The centre has an open door policy, which allows anyone seeking support at any time of the year to access immediate services. It provides some of the most vulnerable young people in the Colin area of west Belfast with a variety of services that boost their confidence, helps bolster family relationships and improves their overall wellbeing.

Dearbhaile has been the organisation's Family Empowerment Worker for the last year, a constant point of contact for all families engaged with the project, and has worked to direct all activities and services for children up to 18 years old.

Dearbhaile points out that her greatest asset is her honesty with clients. Setting clear boundaries has allowed some of the young girls in her group to feel safe enough to overcome great adversity.

"We have a 13-year-old girl, who first came to the centre experiencing great anxiety and frequent panic attacks, and found it really hard to be away from home," she recalls. "She had never been apart from her mum before, or out of Belfast. She had never been to a beach.

"We took her to Corrymeela (near Ballycastle) on a personal development trip for young girls and she was able to engage in every activity, and really came out of her shell. Today, she's involved in everything from event organising, to fundraising and developing team-bonding activities, with the other girls from the group.

"Teenage girls are notoriously guarded but through light touch programmes and by providing positive role models we can build up a relationship of trust with them and provide a safe place for them to communicate."

From Lurgan, Dearbhaile studied social work at Queen's University, Belfast, and worked in Australia with asylum seekers landing by boat, until September 2014. Social work is a vocation for the 26-year-old, who has an older brother and a boyfriend, Ryan McMahon.

"Mum says it was strange - when I was 13, I announced one day that I wanted to be a social worker," Dearbhaile recalls.

"I don't know where I heard of it.

"I started volunteering in a nursing home when I was doing my GSCEs and continued on with community care when I was doing my degree. I was always interested in working with people and I really enjoy the holistic approach that's taken at Footprints.

"We had a really good Children In Need day recently, with Pudsey and Blush, and about 100 people - from tots to senior citizens - put their footprints on white sheets of paper, with the names of their heroes underneath.

"There was everyone from Frozen characters to Superman to parents and grandparents.

"There was even one for the staff here, which was lovely."

Footprints work tirelessly to implement effective programmes for families in the area. As well as the teenage girls group, Dearbhaile has helped grow the Child Development Programmes for children up to four years old, and an art/play therapy programme for children aged four to 12 years old. She also organises seasonal events for families in the area, also known as the Family Activity Programme, which is based on the type of activities that families are responding to.

Whether it's arranging holiday movie nights for families that cannot spend Christmas season together, one-to-one support for mother and toddler around sleep routines and bonding, or sessions to inspire young girls and develop their leadership skills, all of her work is targeted towards strengthening the family unit as a whole.

"All of the activities at the centre are meant to encourage and enhance communication, which I feel is particularly important when working with the young girls' group," says Dearbhaile. "We work with GPs, mental health and social services to support and empower mums. We're a women's centre, so we don't deal with dads.

"It's very rewarding, for example, when we can help children in care to be returned home to mum, and when we can be of support in cases of domestic violence.

"We also help mothers and babies with positive behaviours and bonding through activities like baby-massage lessons, play therapy and getting them to cook and bake together.

"It's lovely to see them bonding and to see mothers and children spending quality time together, that they often don't get at home.

"Around Christmas, families in care or on low income can come in and have a turkey dinner, and watch a movie together. Footprints is the only place some families can get to do that."

Belfast Telegraph

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