WOMEN’STEC, located in North Belfast, offers trade skills training for women, building confidence and bringing participants closer to securing employment. We are well known within the sector for our ability to engage with some of the hardest to reach demographic: women with significant barriers to learning living in areas with very high levels of multiple deprivation. This is particularly true of the most recent group who has engaged with learning at the organisation, young mums (age 16-24) who are completing our TIME 4 ME initiative, a programme designed by WOMEN’STEC specifically in response to this demographics’ identified health and well-being needs in the context of COVID-19.
Like everyone else, when we decided to reopen our doors post-lockdown staff and student safety was the key priority and as a result a number of WOMEN’STEC’S programmes remain on an online/remote learning basis. However, communication between our programme coordinator and participants (both existing and newly registered) compellingly demonstrated that young parents were crying out for face to face support and we decided to make meeting their needs at a local level our top priority. Extensive risk assessments were carried out, both internally and in collaboration with our partner childcare provider Wee Chicks and best practice health and safety procedures were strictly implemented, to ensure that onsite delivery was up and running by the beginning of August 2020. Participant engagement and retention has been significantly high and several young parents make complex journeys or travel long distances to attend the sessions. One participant, who gets 2 buses every week from Dundonald with 3 young children in tow, explains why:
This (TIME4ME) is my thing. I always think about myself as ‘just’ a young mum, but this has shown me that my life takes all sorts of skills which I have to use every day. That makes me proud.
Despite challenging morning routines for the young mums who attend TIME 4 ME, the women have shown an impressive commitment to the training, which they self-recognise for the positive effects it is having on their mental health and wellbeing. Another participant comments:
The first day I stepped in here was really emotional – this was me getting my life back… I was in a really bad relationship for 2 years and I wasn’t allowed to do anything like this, so I am doing something for me for a change. This is me getting my life back… It keeps me busy and gives me some time to myself
In addition to the trade skills training the groups will receive, the young mums are also given the opportunity to access one to one educational mentoring sessions, which gives them a safe space to chat and work through some of the barriers to further education they may have and the response has been unanimously positive. And while COVID-19 has emphasised the usefulness of remote learning and tools such as Google Classroom and Zoom as innovative teaching mechanisms in the context of a pandemic, for many learners the barriers to education, and therefore the barriers to improved mental health, clearly lies with the ongoing delivery of face to face learning and, crucially, childcare provision.