For this month's Bytes Q&A, we asked one of our Belfast based Project Manager's, Sarah Geddis, to share her thoughts and experiences of the last few months. Sarah takes the lead of delivering sessions related to our Positive Sparks programme, as well as several smaller projects involving short term youth work.

Q. For you, what has it been like to live and work through the last few months?

Honestly, the last few months have been challenging for me as both a Youth Worker and as a young person myself (holding onto my last year in the young person bracket…!). Covid-19 has impacted all aspects of my life just like everyone else; working during this time has been different as we are unable to interact face-to-face with young people, we are all experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’ and spending so much of our day looking at a screen. As staff we know ourselves that the Zoom/virtual environment is not a replacement for face-to-face contact but continuing to engage with our young people is so, so important to us so we’re trying to make it as enjoyable as possible!

On a personal level, having the freedom to socialise with friends and family taken away has been a shock to the system but I have had to adapt. I have been getting out for as many socially distanced walks as possible which again is not a replacement for popping round to a friend’s house for a coffee but equally makes me appreciate those around me so much more.

I think it’s important to remember that this will end one day in the not so distant future, Covid-19 will just be a part of history that we have lived through and we will look back and laugh at the countless Zoom quizzes and the many miles we racked up just to spend some time with our friends, but it will come to an end and we should be proud to say we lived through it.

Q. What have young people been struggling with during lockdown and how did they react to being back in school/college?

Throughout the year we have been listening to young people using the Positive Sparks platform. Young people have been telling us they are happy to be back at school as they can socialise with their friends again however, a number of young people have told us they fell behind with school work during lockdown as they couldn’t find the motivation to get up and do their work. In fact, a lot of young people have told us they lacked motivation to do anything during lockdown and this impacted on their mental health massively, causing them to feel isolated, anxious, and unhappy. Some of our rural young people told us they did want to complete their schoolwork during lockdown, but poor Wi-Fi speeds meant they couldn’t participate in virtual lessons or complete the work to the same level as their peers living in urban areas. Some young people have also found spending so much time at home with their families difficult as their parents have been working from home as well and may have little space to themselves other than their bedroom, again causing frustration and isolation.

Q. What long term support do you think young people need as part of the ‘recovery’ from the lockdown period and isolation?

I don’t think there is going to be a quick fix for the ‘recovery’ from lockdown and isolation that young people have experienced during this time. I think a mixture of support and understanding from family and friends is needed as young people experience the impact the pandemic has had on their anxiety levels; mixing with bigger groups of people and returning to certain social scenarios will be more challenging for some young people than others so patience is crucial. I think it is important for youth organisations to be able to get back to some form of normality, with face-to-face interactions as these settings can be a refuge for young people, potentially their only social contact outside of school each week and providing an escape from the feelings of being locked in the house and isolated from reality.

Q. You’ve been working on a lot of our newer projects recently, what has been the highlight?

A highlight for me has been working with Cara-Friend, an LGBTQ+ charity on our Positive Sparks project for Comic Relief, focusing on listening to rural young people. We’ve been meeting on Zoom and it has been fantastic listening to young people when they feel they are in a safe space to speak out on issues that affect them, empowering them to work on their own solutions to big issues. Another highlight has been working on the Google Everyone Connected project, recently I went along with some colleagues to The Windsor Women’s Centre to deliver devices to families in the Belfast Community. These families were highlighted through the Centre as having children needing access to devices for home schooling during the lockdown period and it is hoped the devices will help connect the children with school and allow the adults in the house to take on some up skilling through the Learn My Way and Make it Click platforms.

Q. What are you hoping to achieve with Bytes over the next few months?

Over the next few months I hope that we get some normality back and I hope to engage lots more young people with the Positive Sparks platform so we can get an even better idea of what young people across Northern Ireland are saying and how Covid-19 has impacted them. From these responses I hope we can start up some new projects focused on the ‘recovery’ post-lockdown and how we can best support young people across the whole of Northern Ireland and potentially further afield.