By Finnian O’Toole
Gaisce, which is also known as the President’s Award, is a personal development programme for people aged between 15 and 25 to fulfil their potential. The award began to flourish under President Patrick J Hillery in the 1970’s and since then, over 300,000 young people have participated in the programme. The award comes in three stages: bronze, silver and gold, each of increasing difficulty and timescales. Students often begin their bronze award in secondary school and this year many NUI Galway students are taking the chance to complete the award.
The awards consist of 13, 26 and 52-week programmes, taking up three hours of time each week. Through participation in personal, physical and community challenges, young people feel that it enhances confidence and wellbeing. Participants must also complete an adventure journey as part of each award. The adventure journey is something that young people particularly enjoy, with students travelling to places such as Kilimanjaro and to undertake the Camino walk in Spain. The sense of achievement when participants finally receive their award drives students to better themselves and their communities.
The programme challenges people to undertake a journey that opens all parts of their lives to self-improvement, allowing them to, not only better themselves, but everybody in their community. Students challenge themselves to learn new skills such as a language, take time to better themselves personally and take up something new, like going to the gym, and also to better their community by doing activities such as volunteering with local groups.
One student who is participating in the award this is Caitlin Brennan, a final year commerce student. Caitlin spent time studying in Canada last year as part of her commerce degree. Prior to this experience, she completed her hours for her silver Gaisce award. One of the areas that Caitlin participated in was community involvement, in which she volunteered for a couple of hours a week with a local homework club. Caitlin really enjoyed her time volunteering with the kids from the two local schools. Caitlin said, “I went to the school for an hour or so and I would just chat to the little kids and help them out with their homework, you’d never feel like you were volunteering”.
Caitlin also completed her driving lessons as part of her silver award, which was something very useful to have achieved when she passed her test. This was something she had to do anyways and it’s something Caitlin made a point of when we spoke to her about the award; “Sure, you’re doing half the stuff anyways, so you may as well try get the award while you’re doing it”. She also took up badminton for twenty-six weeks as part of the physical aspect of Gaisce. This aspect is great for getting students who aren’t otherwise involved in physical activity and it’s a great way to meet new people.
Caitlin currently plans to go hiking and camping in the Wicklow mountains for her adventure journey, which she must undertake to become eligible to receive her silver award, a great achievement for a final year student and something that will really add to her CV as a graduate next year. Caitlin said she would strongly recommend Gaisce, “You’re doing a lot of the stuff anyway and it’s nice to give back as well, working with the kids was something I enjoyed, but then, you were like, ‘well, I have to do the twenty-six hours anyway’”.
Another student that is partaking in the Gaisce awards is Ciaran McDermott, a second year electronic and computer engineering student from Athlone. Ciaran is going for his gold award this year, culminating in a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro next August. He had this to say about his trip, “Next August, I’m going to be climbing Kilimanjaro, leading a team of seven members from NUI Galway. I will be doing it in aid of Meningitis Research Foundation, who I am also doing a bit of work with as part of my community involvement”. Ciaran is working hard with the Mountaineering Club in NUI Galway and he participates in rock climbing every week as part of his physical activity. For the community aspect of the programme, Ciaran is doing a mountaineering course over the course of a few weeks and is also partaking in a residential project for the gold award.
Ciaran is also a keen traditional music player and partakes in playing the accordion as his skill element. He says, “I play with a group every week, in a session in The Crane Bar, which is an enjoyable experience”. Overall, Ciaran also reckons that Gaisce is a good initiative and he says, “It’s a good way to formalise things I have an interest in anyways, like it’s really just hobbies I’d be doing anyways and hopefully I’ll get a medal for doing it”.
Gaisce participants like Caitlin and Ciarán are some of the most inspiring young people of our time. The status of Gaisce is growing year on year, more people are helping themselves and others. This affects all our moral headspace and wellbeing, coupled with the wellbeing of others. There are many ways to improve your community involvement, physical and personal skills and Gaisce is the perfect push to achieve those objectives. I challenge every reader of this article to get involved in a personal goal, and Gaisce gives you that opportunity. When President Patrick Hillary saw a future for Gaisce, he would not have believed how many people it would help. I finish with the words of John F. Kennedy – “Every accomplishment starts with a decision to try” – now go for gold.