SINCE its foundation in 2013, R-City has become one of the most important and impressive youth projects in the country.
The project is based in the former Holy Cross Boys’ Community School, which straddles the Shankill and Ardoyne, and aims to build bridges between interface communities.
At its core R-City is about providing educational and employment opportunities for young people while promoting positive youth relations.
A meeting of minds between Alan Waite from the Shankill’s Hammer Youth Club and Thomas Turley from Ardoyne Youth Club set the wheels in motion for the foundation of R-City. Alan explained that he and his co-founder Thomas wanted to create a sustainable cross-community project that would have a tangible impact on local youth.
“In about 2006 or 2007 I met Thomas Turley on a youth worker training course,” he said.
“Back then we realised that we had a few things in common: we lived very close to each other, on opposite sides of the interface, we both had a passion for football, and we both had young families. We had that commonality. We said then that we would try to get our heads together and do a bit of work.
“In 2012 I had the opportunity to visit South Africa while I was working for the Belfast Education and Library Board and while I was out there I got talking to Thomas about getting involved in a project like that one.”
He continued: “When I came back from Africa we met for a coffee and we were talking about youth work in general. We saw that there was a lot of tokenistic work that was going on in the community. There was a lot of money flooded into areas like the Shankill and Ardoyne after the peace process and we thought that it could have been used in a better way.
“Instead of bringing two groups together for a one-off thing, we wanted to design a programme that was going to have longevity to it, a programme that was genuinely going to impact on the participants, and also have an amazing impact on the community that they are part of. That’s why we formed R-City. We started off with a summer camp up the north coast with 20 young people involved in it.”
In the short time since its first summer programme, R-City youth have embarked on their own trip to Blanco, South Africa. The resultant Belfast2Blanco programme has now become a mainstay of R-City and has created life-changing experiences for youths across the community.
“Since then we’ve progressed each year and it has become an amazing programme,” Alan explained.
“Belfast2Blanco has become a progamme within in R-City, and it has been going from strength to strength in terms of the impact on young people and the growth in participants. It has been an unreal journey and one that we will strive to keep going.
“For me personally, it fills me full of pride. More so because as a youth worker and a community development worker you want the young people to grow.
“It’s not about me as a worker – the main focus for us is about giving young people the skills to be able to do what we’ve done.
“80 per cent of our staff team are ex-participants, so the young people that we brought on the programme four years are now staff on the programme. We’ve been giving them the skills and a platform to use their amazing abilities.
“We’re just lucky that we’re still part of it, but it’s the young people who are most important.”
For Alan, the cross-community aspect of the project is one of the most important and intrinsic parts of R-City’s ethos.
“I think it’s extremely important that there are good-relations, a cross-community project, especially here in North Belfast in what is one of the most well-known interface hotspots in the country,” he said.
“This interface has had so much negativity attached to it, but we’re fighting that negativity with positivity. These are young people from communities that have been affected so much by the past, and they are young people who have only positive memories of this place. I think it’s important that programmes like this are paving the way for a younger generation to follow.
“They live within a few minutes from each other and we want them to take away the stigma that the ‘other community’ is bad.”
In addition to their youth programme, R-City has also opened its own coffee shop, which is a social enterprise aimed at providing funds for communities at home and abroad.
“Our social enterprise coffee shop, was an idea that our young people had,” Alan enthused. “It’s a not-for-profit, so any money that is made goes back into our communities. It also sponsors a food drop in South Africa, so every Tuesday and Thursday we feed some of the most vulnerable people in their township.”
R-City has had a ground-breaking impact on Belfast’s youth and Alan insists that their inspirational story is not stopping at that.
“Last week we hosted a national Korean TV company who were looking at our project as a model for their peace process,” he said.
“They did a one-hour documentary that is going to be subtitled for people over there. A few weeks ago we hosted 20 journalists from London who wanted to see the impact of the work that has been ongoing since the peace process.
“We also had PBS from America come over to find out what we’re doing here.
“We’re confident in our model and we see that it works here. I think the future is really bright for R-City. In our vision over the next five years we want to bring R-City across Belfast and then across the country.
“We are predominantly working in North and West Belfast. We see how much of an impact our model is having on our communities, so why not spread that out across the city and then across the country?
“We have a group of R-City people working in Blanco, doing the type of work that we do here only in South Africa. In September we’ll have young people from there coming here to find out about what we do, to help out here, and to use that experience to help them when they go back home. We’re going worldwide.”