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Cancer Fund for Children

August 20, 2018

When Sonia Blair from Millisle, Co Down was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2014, her life turned upside. The stress of treatment took a heavy toll on her, husband Darren, and their two children, Tegan and Rory. But thanks to Cancer Fund for Children, which uses money raised by National Lottery players to support children and young people affected by cancer, the family was able to strengthen their relationships and discover new ways to cope.

Sonia received her diagnosis in December 2014, and at first she and Darren decided not to tell Tegan and Rory – then aged just 13 and 10. But both children had their suspicions that something wasn’t quite right. Four weeks later, Sonia and Darren broke the dreadful news.

“Tegan already had an idea that something was up,” said Sonia. “She had a dream the night before that I had cancer.

“To be honest it wasn’t hard to see all the changes that were happening to me and in the house. I had been an intensive care nurse part time working in Belfast, so I was always home while the kids were awake.

“Then I got the news that the cancer was stage three and had spread to my lymph nodes. Their dad had worked away all the time and all of a sudden he was home all the time and I was away getting treatment five days every fortnight.

“Tegan was only three months into a new school and it was already a tough and emotional time for her. Then they had some lessons on cancer in school and that was particularly tough for Tegan to sit through.”

Getting used to a new school, Tegan was already undergoing major changes in her young life and she found it difficult to come to terms with the news of her mum’s illness.

“I felt different from my friends in school and I didn’t know what to do,” said Tegan. “I was shocked and afraid.

“I began to cry in the class and the teacher could see I was stressed. I felt really, really stressed. My mummy couldn’t drive and a voluntary driver had to take us to school.

“My grandma had to care for us when mummy was having chemotherapy and she was too sick and too tired to do anything with us. There were yellow sharps boxes in the kitchen for my mum to dispose of medical stuff and everywhere had to be very clean. Everything was different and I cried a lot.”

Through a recommendation from a friend, the family joined Cancer Fund for Children’s Young Shoulders programme, which received £600,000 of money raised by National Lottery players from the Big Lottery Fund in 2016.

“The Young Shoulders programme was all about the kids,” said Sonia. “It was designed by them and was specifically for them and Tegan and Rory both loved it.

“There were no uncomfortable or difficult conversations and the kids could express themselves in positive ways and feel they were in control of their path in the programme. They were also assigned a Young Shoulders specialist who worked with them to design activities around their needs.”

The programme included residential trips to Narnia, a residential log cabin in the Mourne foothills. During these residential trips, Tegan and Rory met other kids whose parents were also struggling with cancer, and took part in activities to build their confidence and take control of their personal narratives.

Sonia said: “The programme has helped them to cope with their own struggles throughout my illness so they were able to care for me physically and emotionally. They are also able to think more positively and they help me to think more positively too.”

Thankfully, Sonia’s treatment has now ended and she is doing well. With family life returning to normal, Tegan and Rory are using the increased confidence and positivity they have gained through the Young Shoulders programme to help other children who are experiencing struggles of their own.

“I feel now that my future will be brighter and more positive as I have realised that there is a positive in every negative event in life,” said Tegan. “I am glad we had such a great experience with the Cancer Fund for Children and I hope other kids and families can experience that too.”

Thanks to National Lottery players, Cancer Fund for Children are able to continue their incredible work and help more young people like Tegan and Rory who have a parent who has been diagnosed with cancer.

For more information on Cancer Fund for Children visit:


August 13, 2018

Walter Wood from Armagh went into the care system at just three years old, and a disrupted upbringing left him struggling to cope. But, thanks to the help of YouthAction Northern Ireland, Walter has transformed himself into a role model and mentor to other young people.

In 2016 YouthAction were awarded £599,999 of money raised by National Lottery players to run their Everyday Life project. The four year project supports isolated young men who are involved in or at risk of becoming involved in violence to improve their lives.

Walter got involved with YouthAction when he was 18. He joined their Young Men Talking project, also funded by National Lottery players.

Walter said: “Being in care for most of my life gave me low self-esteem, a lack of drive and a bad attitude towards authority figures.

“Michael McKenna from YouthAction invited me to come along to do some activities. They were taking a group fishing which I was really excited about because I’d tried it when I was younger and loved it, but I never get the opportunity to do it.

“One of the things we talked about was violence, how to combat it and how to deal with different situations. It’s helped make me calmer and improve my communication. I joined in discussions about the new project, which Big Lottery Fund is funding, to give ideas about what young men want and need – it’s great to be listened to and know that I’m contributing to something that’ll help other young men.”

In the past few years, Walter has transformed his life.

“I’m now on a paid work placement with YouthAction as a Young Men’s Peer Mentor. I help other young men by talking to them and giving them advice. Some of the young men I mentor are in the care system so I’m in a good place to share my experiences – I’ve been there, done it and got through it. They look up to me as a role model which makes me feel good.”

Michael McKenna from Youth Action said: “We are delighted to receive this funding for the new Everyday Life project. Young men are leading this and it is grounded in what they see as key issues.

“They are bombarded with so many messages about being male – that you have to be strong, and to not show your feelings. But we are helping them see that being strong is about how you show your feelings. We want young men to understand that at times they may not feel OK – but don’t let it build up and come out as violent behaviour. Instead we’re supporting them to talk about those feelings.

“When we were developing this project with the young men, they told us that they wanted support with good mental health, and we know that violence can come from poor mental health. That’s why it’s one of the areas we are focusing on.

“They also told us they would also like to get out into the community and do positive things. Young men are often portrayed negatively – but through this they’ll be doing the things they are interested in to make their community better. That could be volunteering in youth clubs or community organisations, cleaning up local parks or working with older people.”

Now Walter is embarking on a path he never would have dreamed of.

“Working for YouthAction has given me so much satisfaction and has shown me that I want a career helping other young people. I’ve now got a place on the Ulster University Certificate in Youth and Community Studies and it’s thanks to the opportunities YouthAction has given me.”

Thanks to National Lottery players, YouthAction are able to help young people like Walter not only overcome their own obstacles, but to become role models for others. YouthAction have involved the young men they want to help in every stage of the project, listening to their ideas to create a project that makes a real difference to the people involved.

Monkstown Boxing Club

August 13, 2018

To celebrate International Youth Day, we’re showcasing some amazing groups working with young people in Northern Ireland.

Courtney Cooper from Newtownabbey was getting in trouble at school and finding it hard to cope after her older brother started a downward spiral after taking drugs. But thanks to the support of Monkstown Boxing Club, funded by National Lottery players, she’s become a young woman with a great future ahead of her.

Courtney was just 8 years old when her brother first started using drugs, too young to understand his behaviour. But as time went on, the stressful environment started to affect her mental health.

Courtney explains: “My brother was around 14 when he started taking drugs. He would come home stoned or high and my parents would get upset or argue with him.

“I didn’t even understand what drugs were at that age but I knew his behaviour wasn’t good and I could see the negative affect it was having on my parents.”

When Courtney’s brother was 16 he dropped out of school and moved out of the house. Courtney was dealing with a lot of difficult feelings about the situation, but wasn’t able to express them. She started getting into fights and neglecting her education.

“I might have looked tough on the outside but I was anxious on the inside and I felt alone. I bottled my feelings up for a long time, and at times it all felt too much where I felt like I was going to burst.

“I was afraid that my friends wouldn’t understand and I was worried that people would feel sorry for me or call me an attention seeker.”

But then, during her second year at Abbey Community College in Monkstown, Courtney decided to join Monkstown Boxing Club’s afterschool programme. Last year the Club received almost £600,000 of money raised by National Lottery players for their #INYOURCORNER project, a five-year project working with young people like Courtney to improve their health and well-being and increase their employability.

For Courtney, Monkstown Boxing Club became a lifeline.

“I was excited to go every day and slowly my bad attitude started getting better. I got help doing my homework and I’d have fun playing games or doing some boxing, which was great for letting go of any stress I was feeling.

“Then I started going in the evenings and weekends as well. I started feeling good about myself and I felt safe coming here. My youth mentor Amy is brilliant – she always listened to me and called me out on my bad behaviour and tried to get to the root cause of it.”

Courtney started working harder at school and with help revising at the club she achieved high scores in her GCSE exams in August.  She is now studying for A Levels in Applied Science, Business Studies, and Travel and Tourism.

“My next goal is to do well in my A Levels and I’m aiming even higher after that – I want to get a scholarship and go to University in New York or Canada to study Drama and Stage Studies.”

Now Courtney volunteers at the Club and has become a mentor and role model for other young people.

“I help the younger kids with their homework and run activities for them. It’s helped me mature because I know they are looking at my behaviour and I need to be a role model for them. I’m the youngest in my family so I’m not used to that.

“I use my experiences to give advice to young people about drugs too. I tell them about my brother and how drugs can ruin lives and they listen because I’m their age and I have a real story to tell.”

Paul Johnston, manager of Monkstown Boxing club said: “Young people are involved in every aspect of the project, from the initial ideas, to helping us deliver it. They are at the centre of the whole project and are building their confidence to help themselves and their peers.

“Courtney is a real life example of someone who has come through our previous Box Clever project, and who has excelled and is now feeding into the future for other young people through this project and thanks to Big Lottery funding.”

The Right Key

August 6, 2018

Addiction is an illness that takes hold of a person’s life and overshadows everything in it. But, like anyone else, people who suffer from addiction and substance abuse have unique skills and valuable perspectives to share with the world. All too often, addiction takes them to a place so dark those skills are left unused.

The Right Key in County Down, supported by National Lottery players, work with people recovering from addiction by giving them opportunities to explore their skills and interests. Through this work, people find meaning in each day of their recovery, helping them to stay hopeful for the future.

Tony Donovan is one of the group’s members and credits the Right Key with giving him the strength to fight his addiction. Like many people working with the Right Key, Tony’s decline into addiction happened gradually.

“It didn’t happen overnight but my addiction took over my life and I became a slave to drink,” says Tony. For years, Tony was able to hide his issues with drink. But after he lost his job as a pub manager in Dublin as a result of his addiction, his life began to spiral out of his control.

“I wasn’t working, and my addiction was getting stronger and stronger. It got so bad that I ended up on the streets of Dublin. I was drinking bottles of wine, and I was sleeping out in a cardboard box. I was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually wrecked.”

It was this crisis that eventually led to Tony’s recovery. He entered a rehabilitation programme in Newry, determined to turn his life around. At the end of the programme, he got involved in the Right Key.

Tony says, “I didn’t think I would’ve pulled through, but after I got involved with the Right Key, my health got better, but above all my outlook got better. Even at my age, I want to make the most of life.”

In 2016, the Right Key started a new project that is using £159,409 of money raised by National Lottery players to teach people affected by addiction new skills. People taking part learn how to make guitars and other craft projects, and also create a Book of Recovery in which they tell their personal stories. The project brings affected people together to share their experiences, build up meaningful relationships with one another, and support each other through their recovery.

Sheila Smyth, development officer at the Right Key, said the new project gives people meaning and hope for the future.

“The people that we work with may be coping with addiction but they also have another side to them. Before their lives went into ashes, many of them would have had good hand skills like cabinet making and joinery, or had an artistic side. We talked to them about what they wanted to do and they told us that wanted to be active, and make things with their hands to feel content and worthwhile again.

“Many people don’t make it through addiction but they will be remembered because some of their names will be carved into these guitars. We’ll capture deep moments of healing through the etchings, the secret artwork and names we’ll have inside the guitars. These guitars are going to be like the people who never made it to recovery still having a voice. When these instruments are played, they’ll still be part of our orchestra. They will still be remembered and have a voice within our concerts through these instruments.

For people like Tony, the Right Key offers a bedrock of support. It gives its members the chance to rediscover who they were before their addiction took hold – and to discover who they can become through their recovery. The generosity of National Lottery players means that the Right Key are able to continue this important work and bring hope, light, and music to the lives of those affected by addiction.

Oasis Caring in Action

August 6, 2018

Paige Floyd, from Antrim, started life in care until she was adopted as a toddler. But those three years left an impact. She struggled with her behaviour, and when her adopted mum Rosemary was diagnosed with cancer, Paige found it hard to cope.

But, thanks to National Lottery players, Oasis Caring in Action were on hand to help. With the support of £600,000 of National Lottery funding, their Antrim Youthways project provides an alternative education programme for young people aged 12-19 who are facing all sorts of issues that affect their education, from bereavement and bullying to caring responsibilities and eating disorders.

Secondary school is a difficult time for any teenager. But Paige’s history of being in care made it particularly hard for her to manage her behaviour. Then, when her beloved mum Rosemary was diagnosed with lung cancer, the pressure became too much. Paige had to return to care temporarily, and the stress and disruption had a big impact on her education.

“In secondary school, I was really troubled and quite difficult. I had bottled everything up from my past and it became too much to handle. I became angry and felt like everyone was against me. My behaviour was out of control,” Paige said.

Paige’s parents divorced some years earlier and she continued to live with her mum. When her mum was diagnosed with lung cancer, Paige was terrified she was going to lose her.

“I was trying to keep my mum happy. I was getting myself up in the mornings then helping my mum get dressed and get breakfast. Some nights I hardly slept because I was constantly worrying about her and worrying that I would have to go back into care as well, because there is only my mum and me.”

While her mum was ill, Paige did have to return to care temporarily. She was living in a foster home when her teachers advised her to go to Oasis Caring in Action. There she received the support she needed to get back on track with her education including one to one and group support.

“The first year, I had some ups and downs but the staff at Oasis saw potential in me. I decided to put my head down and work well in my classes there. I developed a bond with my key worker, Jenny and I have a lot of respect for her. I worked hard and came out with good qualifications,” Paige said.

With support from Oasis, Paige gained seven GCSE equivalents and has earned three more since. A keen footballer, she went on to study for a Sports Studies Diploma at the North Eastern Regional College in Antrim.

Rosemary’s cancer went into remission and the support they both got from Oasis helped them to build up their relationship again. Paige moved back home with renewed hope for the future. She is now training as a young leader at Oasis, helping out on the Antrim Youthways project.

Paige said: “I love working with the younger people coming through Oasis. Some of them look up to me because I have come so far. I explain to them how it was with me and they find that very inspirational. I am excited about my future for the first time, and I am so proud at this moment in my life.

“My mum is over the moon for me too. I’m learning to drive and if and when I pass my driving test I’ll be taking the Oasis staff out and treating them. I feel like they’re part of my family now.”

Thanks to the support and dedication of Oasis staff, Paige has become a successful young woman and a great example to other young people. And, thanks to National Lottery players, Oasis are able to continue their incredible work, making a real difference to young people’s lives.