Children in rural areas of Northern Ireland have felt particularly isolated by the coronavirus pandemic and will need extra support in the coming months, according to a County Tyrone summer school.
Children living in country areas have been expressing how much they have missed their friends with many reporting they felt loneliness during lockdown, says Leon Hughes, who runs emotion-through-art activities for young people.
“I am working with children from the towns, cities and countryside. As we have started our summer scheme, I have been struck by youngsters from country areas who appear to have felt the separation more keenly.”
Ms Hughes, 44, owns and runs the Dungannon-based Artfunkle art workshops project.
Its summer scheme is booked out this month with councils, schools, youth and community groups and health trusts using the service.
The education expert worked at South West College for 12 years delivering personal development programmes for marginalised young people.
Northern Ireland Education Minister Peter Weir recently announced £12m for summer activities, while a free school meals scheme for the summer holidays will go ahead after cash was found from existing Stormont budgets.
“The summer schemes could not have come at a better time for all our children, but more so the children of farmers and rural workers,” Ms Hughes said.
“I am a qualified youth worker, a further education teacher and an artist and I have never seen the level of relief among children to get back to seeing their friends and meeting new ones.
“So many, especially the rural kids, say they have missed their friends from school.
“We have a lot of children who have been extremely lonely and we are working through their emotions with them as we deliver our summer scheme.
“My courses were always about using art to discuss issues such as bullying, body image and to promote positive mental health.
“However we are drilling down on the emotions of loneliness and isolation as that is what the children are now needing help with,” the art provider said.
“I have been working with children from the Dungannon area, the rest of Tyrone and across to Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh.
“The relief is palpable when they come into the workshops now. They don’t seem to mind the social distancing and they are experts at it and really good at abiding by the keep safe rules.
“They ask to use the sanitiser and they just take it in their stride and understand they will be doing their art workshop at a single desk and not a big table with other kids.”
Ms Hughes went on: “The youngsters are so delighted to be doing activities with other children in the permitted group sizes.
“I can see it has been a hard time for many so we need to devote our efforts to helping children express how they have felt and continue to feel during the pandemic over the summer.
“Special care and services need to be directed at rural children, especially who have not been able to see friends as easily as city kids.
“The children in the country areas have been acutely isolated. They say they have not been able to get a bus anywhere or go places to see their friends.
“It’s important now that we put resources into alleviating child loneliness in rural areas.”
n Go to www.artfunkle.co.uk; or email firstname.lastname@example.org; Facebook @ArtFunkleDungannon