Gerry Farrell: Not a Village Person in sight at the real YMCA

Fun activities give youngsters a break from problems at home
Fun activities give youngsters a break from problems at home
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If you’re old enough, you might remember that as you crossed the Forth Bridge and got near Kirkcaldy there was suddenly a sharp, chemical smell. It came from a linoleum factory owned by a company called Nairn’s (now Forbo-Nairn). Nairn’s used to employ lots of people in Kirkcaldy but now they only have a small set-up. GEC the electronic firm was a big employer too but they aren’t there any more. In the 80s, the coal mines closed.

The sad fact is that right now there is next to no employment for anybody in Kirkcaldy. Worse yet, in Galatown, a significant part of the Kirkcaldy community, dozens of families are living in poverty, without any hope of getting work because there is none to be had where they live. Sure, they could commute to Edinburgh and get work – but running a car or taking the train is expensive and no Edinburgh employer is likely to pay daily travel expenses to people who are only earning the minimum wage.

Many of the children being helped by the YMCA would otherwise go hungry

Many of the children being helped by the YMCA would otherwise go hungry

I’m focusing on Galatown in Kirkcaldy because the problems there (and I’ve seen robust statistics to back this claim up) are the same problems currently hurting families who live in poverty in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and every other small town in between, where the big employers don’t exist any more to provide social networks and jobs .

There is a glimmer of hope, however: YMCA Scotland. They’re making superhuman efforts in these deprived communities to alleviate the abject poverty that still exists all over this country. They’re doing everything they can to give this generation of children a chance to escape from their horrible circumstances and make their way in the world, some of whom go on to become YMCA volunteers themselves, helping in their own neighbourhoods.

Lots of us still think of YMCA as little more than an old song by The Village People about being gay in America. It was a fun back then and it still fills the dancefloor at weddings and big nights out. But YMCA Scotland is so much more than that and they need a little bit of help from all of us to keep on doing what they are already doing so well.

I wanted to give you a better understanding of exactly what they’re doing with the donations they get so I went to meet Liz Easton, who’s General Secretary at Kirkcaldy YMCA, and Hayley Gillies, who works at the YMCA in Leith.

I asked Liz a few questions about the work she does and Hayley chipped in with her own YMCA experiences. This is a very brief summary of what was said:

So what is it you actually do in Kirkcaldy, Liz?

“How long have you got? I remove Coke cans from the toilets, drive minibuses, cook meals, apply for grant funding, I monitor all the grants, I manage a number of different programmes that run in Kirkcaldy YMCA and outwith the YMCA, we do work in the Galatown, Fife’s most deprived community.”

This might sound daft but what’s the modern definition of poverty?

“It’s probably not having enough income to cover your basic needs. You’re underneath that defined threshold of what you need to survive on. There are hardly any jobs locally and no opportunity to do the kind of four-year apprenticeships that used to teach young people a trade and help them earn enough to support themselves or their families properly. Add in the new benefits system and local authority spending cuts and you have a recipe for poverty.”

So what’s the end result of that and what are you and Kirkcaldy YMCA doing to help?

“We run a programme called Active Kids. We look after four-14-year-old children from difficult backgrounds during every school holiday except Christmas. Many of these young people are not getting any parenting at all because their mums or dads are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. The worst time of the year for these boys and girls is the summer holidays. The children we see, their mums and dads . . . I scarcely know how to sum up their problems. It’s like the Jeremy Kyle show on speed – and that’s not meant to be in any way flippant or disrespectful to those families. They’re in that position through no fault of their own.

“We get kids coming who are so hungry that at lunchtime they’re asking for seconds. We organise swimming sessions for everyone primarily so that certain children get a shower because their personal hygiene has been so neglected at home.

“Every year since 2012, the number of children being referred to us for help has gone up and up to the point where we can’t cope any more. We are literally struggling to find the money to support the absolute flood of seriously deprived Scottish children in desperate need of support and a safe place, throughout the day, during the school holidays.”

What could people do to help find you that extra cash?

“It’s really quite simple. They can volunteer for the YMCA, either in their own community or anywhere the need is greatest. But it would be even better if everyone who reads this piece in the paper or online, could dig as deep as they can and send anything they can spare. The need has never been greater and our resources have never been more stretched than they are at present.

“This is happening right across Scotland, right now. I hope your readers will find out a bit more about it and decide to do something to help us.”

If you think you’d like to help YMCA Scotland, please Google their website now and go to the section headed ‘HOW YOU CAN HELP’.