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Selfless teen volunteers to be honoured for hard work at youth community awards

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Lauren Gaynor

Lauren Gaynor

Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith

Emma Smyth

Emma Smyth

Lauren Gaynor

A teenager who began volunteering in a bid to boost his mental health after a friend took his life is one of nine young people from Northern Ireland to be recognised for their work within their communities.

The nine are among 20 finalists in the 2020 Spirit of Community Awards, the only all-Ireland youth initiative of its kind that rewards post-primary students for their exemplary acts of volunteerism.

Among those included in The Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards this year are Aaron Smith from St Louise's Comprehensive College, Co Antrim; Emma Smyth, St Louis Grammar School, Co Antrim; and Lauren Gaynor, Loreto Grammar School, Co Tyrone. They are all sixth year students.

After one of Aaron's close friends tragically took his own life in 2016, he began struggling with his own mental health and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder.

Looking for help and support, Aaron turned to volunteering for help and joined a cross-community programme, Uniting Communities Young Leaders.

He said: "I began volunteering at around 12 as I had very low self-esteem, so in an effort to boost my self-confidence, I tried volunteering at local events through my youth club, and found myself growing more confident and self-assured."

Aaron joined the Young Ambassadors programme and was approached in early 2019 by the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Association to help co-design a declaration on Human Rights and Sport.

The declaration was a huge success and Aaron was invited to accompany the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Association to the 2019 Commonwealth Games Forum General Assembly in Kigali, Rwanda, where he helped deliver this declaration to 71 different Commonwealth Games associations.

Lauren Gaynor secured her nomination after she spent four weeks in Cambodia this year as part of the Camps International project where she helped rural and impoverished communities there.

She said: "The project was set up to let young people from the UK go to Cambodia and help the local children and learn about another community at the same time.

"We helped build drainage systems, houses, repaired classrooms and taught the children English.

"It was a challenging four weeks that became very rewarding very quickly and it made me very grateful for what I have."

Emma Smyth was first moved to volunteer along with her family to raise funds for Children with Cancer when her younger brother was diagnosed with the disease.

Since then she has gone on to volunteer with a project that helps connect elderly people in her local community, worked in Ghana for two weeks and raised money for Children in Need.

She said: "My motivation came from the support I received from various charities when my younger brother was diagnosed with cancer.

"As I got older, I realised that there were many problems in the world that needed support to find a solution. This encouraged me to partake in different fundraisers and begin to volunteer."

All 20 finalists will attend a gala night in Belfast at the end of May where they will receive their award.

Naomi Hegarty, vice president of Risk, Pramerica Systems Ireland, said the recognition the young people get is truly deserved.

She said: "The 20 finalists selected as part of this year's awards programme are proudly taking a stand for what they believe in and actively empowering others to do the same.

"Our awards programme celebrates these passionate and dedicated young people and aims to give them the recognition and voice they truly deserve."

Belfast Telegraph