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“If they don’t want to learn, fine,” says Willie Whelan, founder of Outdoor Adventure Ireland. “But if they don’t want to fall out of the kayak, they have to listen.”
As he sees it, the outdoor activities he does with young people – he calls it “adventure therapy” – go a long way towards teaching them that there are consequences to their actions.
If you give them plastic and string to make a shelter, they have to do it or they’ll get cold, says Whelan. Or if they don’t hold onto the rope while their friend is rock climbing, their friend might fall off a cliff.
“Often the risks are just perceived,” Whelan says, but when something seems dangerous, it makes people pay attention.
That’s important, because he works with Garda programmes that divert young people away from crime. And he believes that teaching them that their actions have consequences is key to accomplishing that goal.
Getting repeated cautions from juvenile liaison officers for minor offences, doesn’t teach them the same lesson. Only serious crime results in a penalty to fear – but by then it’s too late.
When they’re on a programme with Whelan, they could end up doing anything from camping and hiking, to surfing and whitewater tubing.
The groups he works with usually include five to eight teenagers: big enough to require teamwork and cooperation, but not so big that cliques can develop.
A Stark Contrast
Whelan knew he wanted to get into this kind of work the first time he went out with an outdoor-adventure group, when he was younger.
So, after his own children got a bit older, he left behind his trade as an electrician, and got into adventure therapy. He’s been in the business 15 years now, and started his own outfit six years ago.
“I’d do it even if I wasn’t paid,” he says. “I started the business to make a difference to people’s lives.”
He’s seen friends and family members go to prison, get hooked on heroin or end up living on the streets. But he says they’re not bad people, they just made some mistakes, and he wants to prevent others from doing the same.
“You see devilment in them,” he says of the young people he works with. “But most of the kids are great. You just need to talk to them.”
Whelan also works with recovering drug addicts. “This was never a money thing with me,” he says.
This is evident when a Scottish man enquires about rock-climbing lessons in Killiney. Whelan offers him a lesson for two for €30, but recommends the Irish Mountaineering Club for an even better price.
As well as working with disadvantaged youths, he works in about a dozen schools, helping students complete the Gaisce programme. This almost subsidises the other groups, says Whelan.
He finds the differences between working with schoolchildren in Dalkey and kids from Garda diversion programmes striking. “Their lives are worlds apart,” he says. “It’s really stark.”
A good few of the disadvantaged kids he brings out have never have been in the Dublin Mountains before, even though they’re so close. Sometimes, they don’t even know about the beaches around the city’s coast.
Last year he found out that a woman in her late 20s who was among a group of recovering addicts he was working with had never eaten in a restaurant.
An Ideal Setting
Whelan’s first group of the year – from Cabra for Youth’s Garda youth-diversion programme – braved the chilly weather for four Tuesdays last month. I joined them on two evenings.
Does being outside surrounding by nature make a difference? Yes, and the more remote the better, says Whelan.
Though I’ve been out at Killiney many times, I’m not as familiar with it as Whelan is. He knows the cliffs and caves like the back of his hand.
The group from Cabra, which has seven boys aged 14 to 17, gathered on the dark roadside. They slouched against a wall and the van while waiting for the adventure to kick off.
One says he’s dying for a smoke. Another complains of the cold. Most of their conversation involves slagging each other off.
I follow Whelan, his trusty sidekick Craig Byrne, the teens and two youth workers from Cabra for Youth down the hillside’s stone steps. The way is lit by lamps fixed to helmets.
We finally reach the beach and head for the cliff face. There’s an inlet there and a tiny hole, which everyone proceeds to drag themselves through, muddying their bellies in the process.
“Ye durtbird!” shouts one of the boys, as someone crawling ahead of him farts.
Inside, a huge cave with twists and turns opens up. There’s rope bridges, ropes and buckets set up for teamwork tasks the group must complete.
A Change in Attitude
Over the next hour, they help each other climb up rock faces, squeeze through tight spaces and fill a holey pipe with water from a pool. (Someone’s sloppy pouring resulted in half the group, as well as Byrne, getting soaked from head to toe.) By the end, all the boys are buzzed, giddy and giggling.
“It’s the only time you get to see them acting like kids,” says Byrne happily.
Escaping the enclosed space, they run around the beach. It’s a complete transformation from their initial demeanour. They’ve forgotten about looking cool and acting nonchalant.
“When they’re at home, they’re little hardmen,” says Whelan. “But here they can just be themselves.”
Two weeks later, rock climbing and abseiling at Killiney Hill, the weather is calmer and so is the group.
There were bizarre slaggings, bad language and nonsensical insults:
“This is hard!”
“Your ma’s nipples are hard!”
But it was clear they were actually learning to act like a team and support each other.
They encourage the less confident up the cliff face and advise the easiest route to the top. They also hold the ropes, so nobody can fall off the cliff – though nobody needed this.
At the end of this four-week programme, the group isn’t forthcoming with their thoughts. But one did say, “Willie made it.” The highest of compliments from this group.
Jumping Off the Highest Cliff
Adventure therapy has been around for decades.
It took off as a training programme for the merchant navy. Then it became popular in the UK and spread to America, where it’s a common feature of mental-health services.
In Ireland, we’re still trailing behind a little.
We lose lots of good staff because adventure therapy is not recognised here, says Whelan. There’s very few decent outdoor jobs. Most of the staff at Outdoor Adventure Ireland are part-time.
The Department of Justice funds Garda youth-diversion programmes, but it’s up to each youth organisation how they spend this funding. Only some of them, like the one in Cabra, use it to employ Whelan’s services.
Youth worker Mark Finn says Cabra for Youth did some adventure therapy over the last few years during the summertime, but this was the first time they had done it in the wintertime. “It worked out better again because they got a bit of buzz about going out at nighttime and doing stuff in the dark,” he says.
He believes the programme is successful for two reasons. Firstly, because Whelan is from the same area and understands the issues facing the young men. And secondly, because he tailors the programme to their needs.
“He does a good, wide range of outdoor activities, so they don’t get bored,” says Finn. “We work with fairly high-risk young people, and they don’t usually do well in formal education settings … It’s brilliant for the lads to be getting out, doing outdoor activities, learning extra skills and getting a chance to try stuff that they just wouldn’t generally get a chance to try.”
Whelan agrees he has a different dynamic with each group than a teacher would have. All he has to do is jump off the highest cliff when they go coasteering, and he’s earned their respect.
Finn says he knows of three youths who pursued outdoor education courses after their experiences with Outdoor Adventure Ireland.
Whelan also teaches outdoor-adventure management to the next generation at Coláiste Dhúlaigh in Coolock. This allows him to work with youth groups full-time during the summer.
Craig Byrne, who’s worked with Whelan for two years now, did this course and recommends that anyone with a year to spare do it too.
He knew he wanted to do it after he felt the benefits of short-term programmes.
“When I was younger I was a little bit like those young fellas we take out. I was a little bit mad and someone decided to bring me out rock climbing,” he says. “I got bitten by the bug from there.”
Adam O Shea was part of the Baldoyle Adventure Club throughout all of secondary school, before studying outdoor-adventure management with Whelan in Coolock.
This had a profound effect on O Shea’s life. “It got us out of the loop-around and gave us something to do,” he says. “As a young person, it gave you confidence. I’d always be hyperactive and it was an outlet for that.”
As well as breaking the monotony of the school week, trips abroad and out to into the wild meant that a lot of the group saw places they never would have otherwise, says O Shea.
Since September, his experience in adventure management has gotten him a job as a youth worker. He’s already seen the benefits adventure therapy has.
“They’re not bad kids,” he says. “They’re just labelled as that. If you take them out of the situation that they’re in, they’re completely different. It’s amazing the results.”
He’d love to see more focus on adventure therapy and more places around the city to do it in the winter.
Back to Education
Outdoor Adventure Ireland is in the process of becoming a not-for-profit organisation. Whelan hopes this means it can help more people.
He wants to set up a full-time adventure programme so recovering addicts or teens without leaving certs can get back to education.
His idea is that the programme will be equivalent to a leaving certificate, so those who might not be academic can still achieve a qualification that will open doors for them.
“It would have a major impact on someone’s life,” says Whelan.