FOR SIX years, the OPEN peer education network has enabled young people in Shetland to help each other learn, writes Louise Thomason.
Based on the idea that people often learn most effectively when the message is delivered by a peer, Our Peer Education Network (OPEN) involves training young people aged 16-25 to deliver workshops in schools and youth clubs on issues such as sex education, alcohol and drug use, mental health issues, positive relationships, online safety and child protection, and young parenting.
Project coordinator Saul Day said: “Peer education is a method of passing knowledge and skills onto others; with an aim to educate and inform.
“[It] describes a relationship between individuals with unequal knowledge, and generally takes place between social equals. In the case of young peer educators, the educator and participants generally share similarities such as age, culture, life experiences and/or social background.”
Based at Market House and run as part of Voluntary Action Shetland, the project currently employs four part time members of staff who support 13 young people, all trained as peer supporters, who meet weekly to organise the planning, developing and delivery of the workshops, which are delivered in partnership with local services such as NHS Shetland and Shetland Islands Council’s Children’s Services.
Saul said: “Our Peer Education Network (OPEN) was established in 2011, after a gap in provision was identified locally. It was felt that, particularly given Shetland’s close-knit community, peer education would be very successful given the strength of strategic partnerships between local services.”
Since then, OPEN has reached out to hundreds of young people in a variety of settings, from youth clubs and schools to events and open days. The project is funded through a combination of local and national grants.
From March 2016 to March 2017, OPEN has reached 1098 young people through 75 workshops and 9 information stalls. In this time, the project’s volunteers have collectively contributed a staggering 4200 of volunteering hours.
The project works with schools to achieve the health and wellbeing outcomes set out in the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence. This year, the project has developed a workshop programme with Shetland high schools, which will see every student from S1-S4 participating in OPEN’s harm reduction and awareness raising workshops.
The aims of OPEN are to educate young people in a more relaxed and participatory environment than a traditional classroom setting, focusing on raising awareness of specific issues and promoting harm reduction.
However the benefits of the project are much broader, and include the personal development of the peer educators themselves, who gain confidence, skills and knowledge which is transferable to future work.
Mariel Leask, 24, said: “I’ve been with OPEN for six years, since the very first meeting, and I love it because it’s built my confidence a lot and I’ve learned so much about so many different things that I didn’t learn at school.”
Teigan Patterson, 16, has been volunteering since February. She said: “I enjoy it because I feel like it’s built my confidence as well and I’ve learnt a lot of stuff and I feel like an active person within the community.”
It also seems to be quite a lot of fun. As well as contributing to generating discussion and highlighting issues with their peers across the isles, the young peer educators take part in team building and group work exercises.
Johan Tait is 17 and has been volunteering for four years. She said: “I absolutely love it, it’s a good way to catch up with people and you make new friends with it, we’re one big happy family to be honest.
“I’m still in school so I don’t have as much time to go out and do workshops but now I’m in sixth year, I can do workshops in school more, and I’m going to love that. I love coming here because you get away from everything and you actually get to learn stuff.”
Akira Foster, 20, has been volunteering with the project for three years, in which time she became a mother. OPEN were in the fortunate position of being able to assist her with childcare, meaning she could continue to volunteer with them.
Factual information about sexual health
The project recently partnered with NHS Shetland to produce a short film to promote the range of services available at the Gilbert Bain Hospital’s sexual health clinic.
Produced by Stephen Mercer, the film was created with the peer educators and stars several of them, alongside NHS Shetland staff. It explains the clinic’s processes and accessibility while aiming to dispel any negative associations or stigma attached to the clinic. It focuses on three characters each with different reasons for attending the clinic.
Senior midwife with NHS Shetland Elaine McCover was involved in making the film, and said it was “fantastic”.
“We’re really pleased with it. We were really keen that the information in it was factual and it is, and the most important part we wanted to get across in particular was the confidentiality of the service for young people, which comes across in the video,” she said.
“It’s important for us that young people get factual information about their sexual health. When we can get young people in – whether it’s to speak about contraception [for example] we can also speak to them about sexually transmitted infections, if we feel alcohol is having an impact on someone’s sexual behaviour; we can give them good quality information about other things, just by getting them in the door.”
The film, which was made possible through funding from the STV Children’s Appeal, was launched on Thursday with a screening at the Shetland Museum, and will now be shown across high schools and junior high schools in Shetland as part of OPEN’s sexual health clinic workshops. It can also be watched at the top of this feature.
Saul said: “OPEN meetings are every Tuesday evening at Market House, during school term times, between 6pm and 8.30pm, to provide support to the existing volunteers. If you’re aged between 16 and 25, and interested in volunteering, then please pop along some night or get in touch for more info.”