Our most vulnerable young people have paid one of the biggest prices for Covid-19, yet they remain largely under the radar for vital emergency and recovery support. Almost overnight in mid-March, our schools were forced to close their doors. We know now that was the start of an almost complete lockdown, which, three months later, we are only beginning to emerge from.
While much of the mainstream conversation immediately went to the challenges of homeschooling and Zoom classes and keeping children entertained with baking and bird watching, there was little or no focus on the fact that with school shutdown also came the closure of hundreds of support and critical community-based services like our Just Ask (After School Klub) in Dublin's north-west inner city.
There was little substantive focus on the kids who had no computer to join in the school lessons, or had no garden or no kitchen to do the baking. Many of the children around here in Dominic Street are living in cramped and over-crowded apartments and flats. Private gardens are a pipe-dream. Others are in family hubs and many are living in hotel rooms, homeless with their families and locked down in a single room in a now deserted hotel.
Many lacked the incentive or the home support to be able to continue with the online school work that they were getting.
Before Covid-19, Ireland's most marginalised children and young people were already struggling to secure a safe and solid foothold in society. Poverty and exclusion had too often placed them at the furthest point from meaningful participation in education, from personal wellbeing and from being able to make life choices many other kids take for granted.
For many, including the wonderful kids we work with, the one place where they could feel hope and where they could get the help, comfort and listening ear they needed, were the youth clubs, the sports clubs, and after-school projects like ours. We were their beacon, outside the formal school environment and outside of their - often chaotic - home life.
But the Covid-19 pandemic swept away these lifelines. While we were all in the same storm, we were most definitely not all in the same boat. Years of transformative work by youth projects with vulnerable children was wiped out. While smart subsidies were put in place to keep employers connected to employees, no such support was there to keep vulnerable young people connected to their lifelines.
As a youth leader, I'm very concerned.
While we have done the best we can to try to keep in touch with our children virtually, we know that there is no substitution for face-to-face support and the camaraderie of friends. Most families do an amazing job in difficult circumstances, but it's not without worry.
Just this weekend, I was in touch with a number of parents to see where they are at. One mother said: "Covid has definitely made our house much more stressed and anxious than normal."
While many are doing the best they can to keep their children engaged in school work and to keep a routine, they are also seeing their children's anxiety levels rise. Many are worried about their children's mental and physical health. Others have had to give up competing with the Playstation just to try to keep the peace. I am particularly concerned many of the older children may just drop out of finishing school because of this break.
My biggest worry is that the impact of Covid-19 will last well past this year and 2021. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for poverty and disadvantage. From my perspective, while it may sound alarmist, the stakes are as high as they could possibly be for the kids I work with and the thousands like them across the country.
Perhaps the best and worst part of my job is the simultaneous hope and concern I have for every child. Too often I see futures being blotted out because of poverty, environment, crime or drugs. But then I see futures flourish. A kid who came to our project is now a senior physiotherapist at a top hospital. Just imagine, if he'd been lost to the system, he would have been lost to the nation.
That's why it is so important the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the country are now regarded as a priority. With Covid-19, we also overnight lost the funding for our summer projects. This needs to be reinstated at a minimum. For some kids, a summer project might be a nice addition to a holiday overseas. But, for many, it might be their holiday - their break from the tough and often chaotic environment in which they are navigating their growing-up.
We also desperately need a ring-fenced recovery fund, and a strategy that will stretch beyond the summer, into the months and years that it will take to undo the devastating damage Covid-19 has inflicted. The Irish Youth Foundation, which has funded our project for many years, is getting the ball rolling on this with its Generation Pandemic Strategy and Fundraising Drive to provide vital resources for frontline youth organisations following Covid-19. This needs government attention also.
I've no doubt we will recover as a country. But we also now need to save the country's young and vulnerable. It's too high a price for all of us to pay if Generation Pandemic becomes Generation Lost.
Declan Keenan is a youth leader with Just Ask (After-School Klub)