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South Armagh youth club a ‘lifeline’ says leader as possible funding cuts loom

'The young people rely on the youth club. It can be a home from home'

The leader of a South Armagh youth club has said proposed funding cuts would be highly detrimental to the many young people who use it.

Lizzy Smyth, senior youth worker in charge at St Oliver Plunkett Youth Club, Crossmaglen, described it as a “lifeline” and “part of the community”.

The centre, on the Cullaville Road, Crossmaglen, could see its funding slashed by around £33,000 – out of a budget of just under £130,000 – if province-wide cuts proposed by the Education Authority go ahead.

Ms Smyth said such a reduction in the annual budget would mean cutting the number of opening nights from five to four and reducing staff hours, some by as much as half.

The centre, which has been operating in the area for more than 40 years, has already lost a day in the past year, having previously opened six evenings a week.

“The cuts would affect services like the number of residentials we could take the young people on as well as our outreach work,” said Ms Smyth.

“It’s not just about the building itself, it’s about working in communities such as Silverbridge, Cullyhanna, Cullaville and Dorsey.

“We will also be unable to sustain the level of staffing.”

The club has seven members of staff, with Ms Smyth working full-time and the remaining six on part-time hours, as well as a number of volunteers.

It has more than 100 children and young people on its books – from primary school right up to the age of 18.

Activities it provides include a School of Rock, where young people are taught how to play the guitar and the drums, as well as arts and crafts, dance and the normal club activities such as pool, darts and the use of a sports hall.

The club is expecting to hear the outcome of its funding application this Thursday, February 16.

She added: “We live in a rural area and that in itself is an issue in terms of rural isolation for young people. The GAA is the prime outlet for young people but for those not into sport the youth club provides a fantastic social outlet

“There are also some young people who are disengaged from the formal education sector and who struggle with school.  The youth club provides added opportunities for them to engage in accreditation and training programmes and volunteering.

“The young people rely on the youth club. It can be a home from home, especially if they are struggling with family relationships.

“South Armagh is in the top 25 per cent of deprivation in Northern Ireland and Crossmaglen is the most deprived area in the district council area. You have poor mental health, social isolation, loneliness and the lack of transport links not to mention poor digital access.”

She said previously there had been additional sources of funding to apply to, in order to supplement the budget, but that these are no longer available.

“It has been offered in other areas across Northern Ireland but we are at a complete loss as to why it hasn’t been offered to the South Armagh area, specifically because of the high level of social deprivation,” she said.

The proposal has been condemned by Sinn Féin MLA for Newry and Armagh Liz Kimmins.

“As the mental health champion for the north, Siobhan O’Neill in particular has warned recently, the loss of these services could have a real negative impact on the mental health of young people who had previously availed of the services,” she said.

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