Santry woman honoured for work in helping keep homeless kids fit
A Santry woman has been honoured for her work in keeping homeless kids fit and active.
Sinead Ryan is a founder of Little Fitness, an educational fitness programme for children who are experiencing homelessness and living in marginalised communities. She was recently awarded €3,000 and a place on Social Entrepreneurs Ireland’s Action Lab accelerator programme, which aims to accelerate social change through the power of people.
She started her work when she was made aware of the heartbreaking difficulties children living in emergency accommodation experience at a fitness class of hers. “I was teaching a group of children when two brothers came into the class, and I just found that they were so vulnerable,” Sinead told Dublin Live.
“They were very emotional and they struggled being in the group – particularly for a four and a five-year-old actually saying that they can’t skip, or they can’t jump, or they’re too tired.”
Sinead learned that they were living in emergency accommodation, and that many children living in that situation have it particularly rough. She said: “They come in from school and they are usually just in their rooms with their parents. If a child needs to go out, the parents usually have to go outside with them.”
The service Sinead envisioned would provide that break away for the parents from the children, knowing they were in a safe place, and make the children feel a sense of belonging as well as helping them rebuild their fitness. It would also encourage positive conversations around physical activity between the parents and child, as well as stretching, nutrition, and opening the children to a different form of engagement.
She decided to do a pilot programme and engage with the families, the children and the social workers before the Covid-19 pandemic. And while the pandemic slowed her plans for a while, Little Fitness eventually kicked off and the founder even did a summer camp last year.
“The first day, this little boy, he just held my hand through the sessions,” Sinead recalled. “Then the second day, he slowly started doing little things, but he just wanted to be beside me and watching the other boys and girls participate and he gradually, gradually grew over the few days, his confidence grew to let go of my hand and to participate.
“And that was lovely – obviously it was lovely that he felt reassured that he could hold my hand but also then to let go and to be able to be part of the group. You always get different characters and engagement with children.
“It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding work, and I thoroughly enjoy what I do”.
Little Fitness works with children aged between four and 12-years-old. “One thing about working with children living in emergency accommodation is that there’s the want and the willingness and the need for the program,” Sinead said.
“They’re like my children. They’re like your neighbours, your nieces, your nephews. All children are the same and they really want to engage.”
Sinead says her top goals are to give children confidence, self-belief and a sense of belonging. “Why shouldn’t they believe they can do anything?” she asked.
“They should be able to do anything in the world. But for them at this time, living in these services, that kind of confidence, that self belief just isn’t there for them. We need to do more to make sure that yes, you’re going through an extremely difficult time but you know, within that, Little Fitness is bringing this positive experience.
“It’s bringing fun, it’s bringing games, and it’s important for them to feel, ‘actually, do you know what? Yeah. It wasn’t too bad. And I got through that.’ Because they will get through it. And that’s important as well.”
This sense of getting that normalcy back is later reflected back to the parents. She reflected: “I had a dad say to me after the summer camp, ‘you know, we’ve been living in this hope the past 18 months, and what you are doing is bringing hope to me and my wife’.
“And I just thought, oh my God. Like, why wouldn’t we keep doing what we’re doing? Because when you see the impact that it creates both for the family and the children, it just makes sense.”
Sinead also talked about how important it is to do more for the children living in homelessness right now, with figures showing there are almost 3,500 children among a record homeless figure of 11,542. “That’s scary,” she said.
“We have these families and we have these children living in emergency accommodation, family sharing rooms, sibling sharing rooms. [Two years ago when] I was pitching this idea, I was actually saying there were 2,348 children.
“I think it’s really important that we talk about this because life is hard at the moment for a lot of people. And you know, the reality is, some people are just a paycheck or two paychecks away from linking in with services.
“There’s so many reasons why people find themselves in these situations, and it’s important for everybody to understand that the children never have to be there. And that’s the other thing we need to do. We need to do better for the children.”