IRELAND'S first ever national Missing Persons Day takes place this week – and it's all thanks to a group of very determined teenagers.
The announcement of December 4 as the date chosen to officially commemorate Ireland's missing is the final phase of a campaign set in motion two years ago by students from Davis College in Mallow, Co Cork.
Initially inspired by the heartbreaking story of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the Forget Me Not campaign to highlight the issue of Ireland's missing people not only convinced the Government to introduce a national day of commemoration, but resulted in the production of a special commemorative calendar, an app containing information to help the families of the missing, a fundraising campaign that continues to this day and a Tree of Remembrance in Aras an Uachtarain, planted by the President.
Not bad for a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds.
Needless to say, their project went on to win the highly prestigious All-Ireland Young Social Innovators award last year.
Young Social Innovators (YSI) is a project-based programme, supported by the Vodafone Ireland Foundation, which gives 15 to 18 year olds an opportunity to examine social problems in their communities and bring about the changes they wish to see. Usually run by schools for transition year students, it is also a feature of the Youth Reach and Leaving Certificate Applied programmes.
First established as a pilot project in 2001 in 11 schools involving just 100 students, it has encompassed 50,000 students in the intervening years, and is expected to sign up more than 6,500 students in the 2013-2014 school year alone.
For the students of Davis College Mallow, their participation in the programme is something they will never forget.
"We just wanted to help the families of the missing," says Josie McGrath Ryan, one of the 24 transition year students who spearheaded the groundbreaking initiative.
Now aged 17 and in her Leaving Certificate year, McGrath Ryan recalls how the project became a life-changing experience and a major learning curve for those who took part.
"We took it very seriously. My whole school has changed; we now have a much greater understanding of mental health and depression as a result of the campaign," she says.
The pupils researched the topic and held a vigil for the families of the missing at the beginning of their transition year.
Among those who attended was Ann Boyle, the mother of schoolgirl Mary Boyle who disappeared without a trace in Donegal in 1977. "Mary Boyle's mother, Ann, told us she couldn't believe that students all the way down in the south of Ireland cared so much about her little girl," she recalls.
McGrath Ryan says that witnessing first-hand the despair and unyielding sorrow experienced by the families of the missing had brought home to the Davis College YSI students the sheer overwhelming loss these people had suffered and so they pledged to do something about it.
First they developed a special missing persons calendar featuring more than 100 missing people, 12 of whom had their own page dedicated to them on the month of their disappearance, with letters from their loved ones.
The calendar raised more than €10,000, which was donated to an Irish group which helps families determined to discover what happened to a loved one.
The money, says McGrath Ryan, helped recover the body of a missing teenager in Galway in early 2012.
Spotting a need for trained professionals to be more available to the loved ones of the missing, the students fundraised for organisations such as Pieta House.
"We're continuing to fund-raise for them and they are establishing their first Cork centre this autumn," she says.
The students also decided that, although everybody could empathise with the sense of loss experienced by a family when a loved one goes missing, it was not something that was sufficiently highlighted.
"We felt it wasn't something that is talked about a lot. So we lobbied for a national Missing Persons Day," she adds.
The experience was incredible, she said. "We met with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice, and we also presented our proposal to the Joint Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality."
The group convinced everybody they met – and, she says, they were told that Ireland's first national Missing Persons Day will now take place later this week.
But there's more – the students also developed a basic app, which provided information about organisations that help families trying to trace missing members. The idea, says the school's YSI teacher Kathy Kilgallon, inspired Vodafone to develop a more sophisticated version.
"It was a very busy year. We were very tired at the end of it," says McGrath Ryan. But she feels that they did their work well.
"Every year now, there will be a day that is recognised as national Missing Persons Day."
The Young Social Innovators programme is about doing real things, says CEO and co-founder Rachel Collier.
"The young people do really substantial work.
"One of the things that makes the programme work so well is the young people choose what they want to do.
'They can take on any social issue – it might be to do with missing persons because they may know a family with a missing person."
Or, as students in St Joseph's Secondary School, Co Westmeath, did, create an award-winning campaign on farm safety, inspired by the experience of a classmate who saved his father's life following a farm accident.
Shocked at the number of reports of suicide, another award-winning team at Mount Mercy College in Cork focused on promoting awareness of suicide and on how to encourage people to communicate openly about it.
"It's not about reading books or writing essays on the topic," says Collier.
"It's real, it's about getting out and doing something that they're really passionate about.
"What they do is very innovative, that's the main thing.
"The big picture is that we really believe as an organisation that young people have a huge amount to offer and Ireland really needs to use their potential."
The YSI programme has substantial support from the Vodafone Ireland Foundation, which is providing over €400,000 in funding to Young Social Innovators this year as well as technology and expertise.
The foundation also supported a national 'Go Do' marketing campaign to drive awareness and applications to the Young Social Innovators' social innovation programme.
Natalie Hodgess of the Vodafone Ireland Foundation says: "We believe every young person should have the opportunity to participate in this programme and have a joint goal with YSI to create an empowered network of 100,000 young social innovators by 2015. We look forward to seeing the results this will bring for the future of Ireland."
And it's not hard to see why – last year alone, more than 5,500 young people participated in Young Social Innovators' 2012/13 programme.
Between them they undertook some 350 projects aimed at finding and implementing solutions to a range of fundamental social issues that included youth literacy, cyber-bullying, youth facilities, farm safety and continuing education for teenage parents.
Everything that Young Social Innovators does, must, by its very definition, be grounded in practicality. Eureka Secondary School, Kells, Co Meath, for example, was named the Young Social Innovators of the Year 2013 at the annual YSI Showcase and Awards last May for its innovative organ donor education programme for teenagers.
Essentially, says Collier: "We have created a framework for socially innovative action – it's about the four Cs: care, co-operation, communication and change. A really good social innovation will have all these elements in it."
And to date, she says, the success of the programme has "surpassed all our expectations".
For more information, visit www.youngsocialinnovators.org