‘I am around people who can relate to me’: Helping young people to grow through water activities

Active Connections offers outdoor adventurous camps for youths with behavioural difficulties throughout summer and at weekends

It’s the first time on the water for some of the participants of the Active Connection Ember Camps. For others, coming to the Royal St George Yacht Club in Dún Laoghaire for this water sports activities camp has become a special part of their summer over the last few years.

One teenager boy sat on the edge of the pontoon for about four hours the first day before he braved it into a canoe or kayak. Some sit on the stand-up paddle boards with their instructor.

Others canoe under the supports for the old ferry pier, enjoying the echoes created by their voices. Many aren’t strong swimmers, but they are happy to fall into the water with their wetsuits and life jackets on. There is no pressure to perform as the emphasis is clearly on having fun.

“I come to this camp because I am around people who can relate to me,” says 13-year-old Luke Costello.


“I have lots of fun in the water and I’m making new friends as well,” says 18-year-old Ross King.

“Water is my life. I go swimming. I go out on boats and I go fishing,” says 13-year-old Sean O’Grady.

“We focus on having fun – not the disability but they all get to be here because of the additional challenges they have. It’s all about getting in and letting the water be therapeutic,” explains Collie Patten, who leads the Ember camps in Dún Laoghaire and other locations throughout the country.

The social enterprise, Active Connections, offers outdoor adventurous camps to young people with behavioural difficulties throughout the summer months and at weekends the rest of the year. They also do therapeutic work with young people on a one-to-one basis. The participants are referred to them through the HSE, local authority sports partnerships or community-based support groups. They currently operate in Dublin, Cork, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Carlow, Wexford and Waterford.

We give participants one to one support and we see what they get out of it. It’s hard work but it’s really rewarding

“This shouldn’t be special. It should be the norm and available in every county,” says Patten. Some other groups such as Surf2Heal offer surfing for young people with autism and adapted sailing courses are offered to people with disabilities through the Sailability not-for-profit organisation.

In Active Connections, the aim is to build responsibility and empathy so that the participants can respect themselves more whilst also learning to have compassion and concern for others. Ultimately, it’s about improving relationships on a day-to-day basis. Camp-goers range in age from seven to 17 and while some are very chatty and outgoing, others don’t speak at all.

“It’s a vital part of my summer,” says Ruth Connolly, mother of 14-year-old Joe, who has Down syndrome. “The instructors are kind, caring and patient and it’s a wonderful safe environment for Joe. Coming to this camp has increased his confidence on the water,” she adds.

Councillor Denis O’Callaghan, mayor of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown, comes down to the water’s edge to observe the activities. “I spoke to a mum whose son is a wheelchair user and she says he feels happier and in a better mood after the camp,” says O’Callaghan. The Embers camp has use of a hippocampe beach wheelchair which gives access to the pontoon. Two canoes have been strapped together for those who don’t like getting too splashed or wobbly on the water. Comfy beanbags are used as seats with extra padding around their arms for support if need be.

Gwen O’Looney, acting sports inclusion and disability officer with Dún Laoghaire Rathdown (DLR) County Council says that there will be over eighty participants in the four weeks of the camps which are fully funded by the local authority. “A lot of the kids on the Ember camps don’t have access to other camps,” she says. For many of the young people, these camps are an alternative to respite care in their own homes.

The instructors are mainly trained in outdoor education although some healthcare/social care assistants can be upskilled to join the teams too.

Caitríona Godsil, an outdoor sports instructor is managing the team when we visit.

“We give participants one to one support and we see what they get out of it. It’s hard work but it’s really rewarding. If you have a happy and empathetic approach, any difficult situation works itself out,” she says.

Adam O’Brien, another outdoor sports instructor, has been working with Active Connections Ember camps since 2020. “We build nice relationships working one-to-one with the participants. Everyone is very passionate about what they do here and this energy transfers over to the kids. The staff gets just as much out of it as the kids. It’s all about having fun, messing around on the water and giving people opportunities to try things.”

As the session ends, many of those on the camp jump into the water with their instructors. Any fear of water they may have had at the start of the camp is certainly overcome by the end of the week.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment