Empowering Communities through Training: A Case Study


In the heart of Omagh, two community leaders, Fiona McDermott of Five Star Omagh and Andy Campbell of Together with Solace Mental Health and Social Support Group, have been instrumental in driving positive change building their knowledge and capacity through their participation in a series of training courses offered by the Investing in Community Leadership Programme. Their dedication to enhancing the lives of individuals with disabilities and promoting mental health and well-being has not only impacted their own organisations growth but also rippled out to benefit the wider community.


Fiona McDermott and Andy Campbell


Launched in January 2021, the Investing in Community Leadership Programme, includes new and specific qualifications that support the next generation of leaders, to build their capacity to respond and react confidently to the ever-changing challenges they face and give them the skills they need to make sure community voices are heard. Administered by three organisations based in the West of Northern Ireland - Fermanagh Trust in partnership with Holywell Trust in Derry/Londonderry and the Rural Community Network, a regional support organisation that is based in Cookstown. The programme is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.


Fiona McDermott, serving as the Secretary for Five Star Omagh, shared insights into their efforts to provide social outings and events for people with disabilities. Recognising the gap in social spaces for individuals over 15, Fiona and her team took the initiative to establish a voluntary group, filling the void and offering a supportive environment for socialisation and engagement.


She emphasised, " We provide social outings, social events for people with disabilities. With different facilitators in to do different things, we celebrate birthdays, we host parties, we have discos, we have just a whole variety of things you know that they can come out and socialise.”


Similarly, Andy Campbell, from the Together with Solace Mental Health and Social Support Group, highlighted the importance of combatting isolation and promoting mental health. Through activities like crocheting groups, walking sessions, and social cafes, Andy's organisation has become a beacon of support for those in need of companionship and understanding.


Andy highlighted, "To help with the work in my organisation, I've done probably five or six of the online courses so far as well as face-to-face. I think more people need to sit down and do them, the variety of courses there is unbelievable. There’s a lot around mental health and differing abilities which is particularly useful for my group. One course I did was in Autism Awareness, we have a young lad with us who has autism. I’ve been able to gain a better insight into how to deal with behaviours and way of working because you have a qualification in it technically.”


The catalyst for their journey towards community empowerment came through the Investing in Community Leadership Programme. Fiona and Andy seized the opportunity to participate in various courses tailored to their organisations' needs. From critical thinking to energy efficiency, these courses equipped them with valuable knowledge and skills to better serve their communities.


Fiona shared her experience, " I've done one on asthma, recording incidents, food hygiene, sort of a variety, they're fantastic. I usually take a morning a week to myself where I sit down in the corner and I stick in my airpods and that's it. Being able to complete the online courses in your own time is such a benefit. The asthma awareness online course, I completed it because my son's asthmatic, and they had downloadable documentation that you complete, like a plan for that child. I spoke to the teacher and the principal and showed them the whole thing. And they were like, oh, that's fantastic. So, they now have adopted this plan, so his inhalers in his wee box with all his wee bits, like they stated, had it labelled and all perfect. The school have taken that and done it for all the children that are asthmatic. So what I learned from doing the online course, the school have now adapted it and put that in place, you know, with all the rest of the children, which is fantastic.”


Moreover, the networking opportunities provided by the programme enabled Fiona and Andy to connect with peers from diverse organisations, fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange within the community sector. They emphasised the importance of staying informed and adaptable in a constantly evolving landscape, advocating for lifelong learning as a cornerstone of effective community leadership.


Both Fiona and Andy acknowledged the accessibility of online courses, catering to individuals of all backgrounds and facilitating flexible learning opportunities. They praised the potential for these courses to empower individuals who may have been out of a formal learning environment for an extended period.


Fiona reflected “I completed the OCN in Community Development, I suppose after Covid, the opportunity to do a course like that, unless you go to the local college or whatever, there was nothing really appealed to me through the College. Sonya sent me the OCN info and I thought, you know what, I'm going to do this, if not for the group, for myself. To get out and to get into that environment and just bouncing ideas about because those taking part in the course were from all different types of organisations. I'm definitely eager to do the next stage of it. It's good that networking with other groups as well and making those connections. So often we’re in our own world and it’s beneficial hearing from others in the same sector.”


Andy added “After each course I’ve done, there's something there that's wanting me to go right - I'm going to go home and I'm going to look into that or I'm going to do X, Y and Z.  I've done training in disability awareness inclusion, critical thinking, creative thinking. Every course you do, there's something you pick up. Well, the space that we use for our group, we were told we weren't allowed to use the kitchen facilities because nobody had their food hygiene. If you hire, say a church hall, the first thing that somebody needs is their food hygiene. I had it, but it's probably 10 years since I've done it so they were like, we'd like to have it a wee bit fresher than that. So, I was like, no problem. Online, done it.”


Fiona added “I think constant learning is so important as things are changing all the time. You always have to keep on top of it whether it’s policies and procedures or soft skills. But it's building your personal portfolio of what knowledge you have too. We’re all guilty sometimes of staying in our own silo so it’s important to learn new things and take part in courses relating to what you’re doing. For the likes of me, it’s been about 18 years since I got a qualification. To go back to studying, these online courses are a great way for somebody who hasn't been in a classroom type situation. But then the other side is the face to face courses. They're not OTT, they're formal but informal and very relaxed with all abilities. I think it's a great way to ease you back into doing something as well. So for the likes of, I know I said to my mum who’s involved in a senior citizens group, there's a couple of online courses there that you would benefit from and you can do it on your phone or go into the library using their computers. So there you go, there’s a wide reach to all this learning.”


As Fiona and Andy continue their journey of learning and growth, their dedication to community empowerment serves as an inspiring example for others in the voluntary sector. Through their collaboration and commitment to ongoing education, they exemplify the transformative power of community leadership in creating positive change.


The Community Leadership Programme is committed to empowering individuals within the charity sector through a comprehensive range of training courses aimed at achieving several key objectives. Firstly, the programme prioritises confidence building, recognising it as essential for effective leadership. Participants are encouraged to step out of their comfort zones, develop self-assurance, and advocate for change within their communities. Secondly, the programme offers a mix of accredited and non-accredited courses to cater to diverse learning preferences and career goals, many of the short courses and online courses act as a gateway to further learning, creating an appetite for further personal and professional development.


Accredited courses provide formal recognition of skills and knowledge, enhancing participants' credentials for career advancement, while non-accredited courses focus on practical skills development and personal growth. Lastly, the programme aims to level up opportunities for professional development within the charity sector, ensuring that individuals from all backgrounds have access to high-quality training, mentorship, and networking opportunities. Through these initiatives, the Community Leadership Programme seeks to build a more diverse, resilient, and effective charity sector capable of meeting the evolving needs of communities.



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