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27 February 2003 Edition

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Faith in Ballymurphy's future


"There are a million reasons for young people to end up in trouble. Kids come in here carrying bags of troubles, but it needn't be like that. There are success stories, and there can be a lot more of them." - Al McComb
When you work with youth at risk you have to have faith. You have to have vision and hope for the future.

Al McComb possesses all these qualities, but it hasn't always been easy.

McComb has spent more than 20 years working with young people in West Belfast. He is not a man who gives up easily and that has certainly served him well. Even the process of trying to get British government funding, as those in the public and community sectors know only too well, requires tireless determination.

Al's work also requires immense patience and a unique kind of creativity. He and other youth workers constantly have to find innovative ways to respond to a dizzying array of challenges and obstacles.

His latest labour of love is a new youth outreach center in Ballymurphy.

The Ballymurphy Activities, Sports, and Education centre, (known as 'the BASE') officially opened its doors on 17 February but even as Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and representatives of Families Bereaved Through Car Crime arrived to launch the centre, McComb was outside quietly trying to reassure a reluctant youth that he would be made welcome, regardless of any trouble he may have been involved in in the past.

"This is not an anti-hood project," says McComb, "but we will not judge any young person who comes to us. We don't turn anyone away. This centre is about all our young people. It is here for them.

"Instead of knocking on the door of someone's home with a list of damages and saying 'leave the area', we offer support and help Young people are our future assets.

"There are a million reasons for young people to end up in trouble. Kids come in here carrying bags of troubles, but it needn't be like that. I have seen young people turn around and the difference is like night and day. There are success stories, and there can be a lot more of them."

It has taken a great deal of work to get the centre open and keep it running. Even completing the forms required for funding is such a complicated proceedure that most established groups actually hire private consultants to do the work for them. But consultants are very costly. Smaller groups cannot afford them, and so they often fall by the wayside in spite of the urgent need for their services.

The BASE is located in the old bookies at the top of the Whiterock Road, next to the Spar. Before it served as a bookies, the location was used as a butcher's meat storage room, but you wouldn't know it now.

In trying to attain the space, keep it running, and pay the bills, McComb and his collegues have often reached into their own pockets, but it is an investment they are willing to make for the benefit of the young people they work with and their families.

"From three in the afternoon we have upwards of 60 kids in here," says McComb, as he gestures around the small but spotless room. "That is proof that we are needed and that young people in the area are interested.

"We organise outdoor events, sports and trips, and we provide all the required equipment and training. We teach kayaking, archery, canoeing and mountaineering. We go camping and wet bouldering. Kids can gain qualifications."

"Here at the centre, we have internet access and provide education on how to use it safely. There's a Playstation, a DVD - all here for the kids to use. And right now we are waiting on delivery of a pool table."

The centre's role doesn't stop there. The BASE also provides young people with health information, drug and alcohol education, advice, and job training. During late night activites, staff ensure that all young people are dropped off safely at their own homes.

The centre actively encourages parents to avail themselves of the many services provided by the centre too, offering a meeting point for a cup of coffee or tea, a yarn, or a bit of support.

Parents will also have access to the computers and internet, and McComb and the other workers at the center are hopeful that they will call in if they happen to be passing by, out doing some shopping, or dropping the kids off at school. He hopes some parents will go on to become BASE volunteers and support workers. McComb and his staff will even provide training for anyone who might be interested.

Al McComb has very personal reasons for hoping that the BASE will provide young people with an alternative to the hopelessness, anger, boredom, and apathy that they experience.

On 1 March last year, his 15-year-old niece, Debbie McComb, died when a stolen car was driven directly into a group of young people standing at the corner of the Whiterock and Springfield Roads in West Belfast.

Debbie and her friend Bernadette Hall were thrown into the air by the force of the impact and Debbie was killed. More than 2,000 people attended her funeral.

On the same day that Debbie was being prematurely laid to rest, two young men were appearing in court in connection with the incident. Al McComb had known both of them.

This coming Saturday, 1 March, the Ballymurphy residents' association will be holding a candlelight vigil in memory of Debbie and all those injured and killed by car crime. It will be followed by a special mass at Corpus Christi Chapel and the residents' group is asking residents of the Upper Springfield and throughout the Six Counties take part.

Debbie's death was the catalyst for the formation of the anti-car crime group "Families Bereaved Through Car Crime" and her memory is also a motivating force behind the new resource centre in Ballymurphy.

"That is something that we keep wondering," says McComb. "If this centre had been open, would Debbie still be with us? If this and similar services had been available could we have prevented young people from getting into stolen cars?"

After enduring such tragedy, it would be easy to become bitter, but Al McComb is determined to bring about positive change for our youth and their community by pioneering an alternative that young people themselves can actively create.

"We want to provide a safe place for young people to participate in a wide range of activities. But outside of a few obvious safety regulations, they make up their own code of conduct and rules. We do not impose any on them. They decide themselves.

"However, we need the support of local politicians and community workers to examine the lack of funding for young people in West Belfast. We must go to those tasked with providing for our kids."

The BASE, at 195 Whiterock Road in West Belfast (028 90 278651), is open from 11am each day and the staff invite young people or parents or both to come along and see what's on offer.

"It's only a small project," says McComb, "We're only starting, but we will make it."

"Our door is open to everybody.'

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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