Project Sparks going to the next level

In just a short four and a half year spell, Londonderry-based musical teaching group Project Sparks have taught music to over 1,500 children in the North West.

Friday, 15th October 2021, 2:32 pm
Updated Friday, 15th October 2021, 2:34 pm
The Liberty Consortium’s Project Sparks team at their headquarters at The Playtrail on the Racecourse Road in Londonderry.

They are now about to embark on a new phase of the project, aiming to reach older age groups and expanding their base of Leaders, the disabled young adults who teach the children.

Erica Curran co-founded Project Sparks alongside Eamonn McCarron in 2017.

“The idea was training gifted young adults to teach the arts to children,” she explained.

Noel McMonagle

“We had worked in the field of disability for a while and we recognised that there was potential in the young people. We felt that there was a tendency to homogenise young people with disabilities when in fact they are all so different.

“We felt that if we gave them the responsibility they would rise to that challenge and that’s what we have found happened.

“We began with a small pilot where the leaders were trained to teach music - singing, dancing and drumming - to primary school children with the prospect of changing expectations around disability.”

The success of the programme so far has encouraged the team to reach out and expand with the aim of increasing the pool of Leaders.

Sorcha Friel

“The next phase is that we have recognised that we need more Leaders. What we have at the moment is a relatively small group of people who are making a huge difference,” she said.

“For this to become normalised and for young people with disabilities to be recognised as mentors in their own right, we have to create more . So in this next phase of the programme our Leaders, or mentors as we call them now, are going to work with people from disabled and non-disabled organisations and schools.

We are going to be working with people who are disabled and not disabled, working together all being taught by our Leaders.

“The hope is that we will inspire some new recruits to be new Leaders so we can expand and strengthen our network and spread the word.

Sarah Jane Murray

“The next programme is funded through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in partnership with the National Lottery.”

According to Erica, one of the founding principles of founding Project Sparks was to help change people’s perceptions of disability - and also to change their own perceptions of their potential.

“For the Leaders themselves, the aim of the project was for them to recognise their own potential and to be challenged,” she said.

“ We don’t often associate positive challenge whenever it comes to disability - we want to support and sometimes make things easier for them . We have found that they have grown because we have challenged them.”

Owen Coyle

Schools Project Sparks have worked with so far at their base at The Playtrail on the Racecourse Road include Holy Family Primary, Model Primary Greenhaw Primary, St Patrick’s and Cumber Claudy.

In the next phase of the project they are working with Foyle College, St Cecilia’s and Knockavoe in Strabane among others, reaching out to older age students as well as looking for future Leaders to sell the ranks in the future.

“ The hope is that we will inspire some new recruits to be new Leaders so we can expand and strengthen our network and spread the word,” said Erica.

“This project is all about exploring and celebrating diversity. We are moving on from working with children and expanding to inspiring the next generation of young disabled mentors.

“The music side of things and the arts are the vehicle which we use. By being creative through music it gives young people the opportunity to express themselves rather than emulating anyone else. It allows them to figure out who they are and to celebrate together.

“The next group of young people who work with us can recognise their own potential through the Leaders. They need to know that it is possible.

“It is fantastic that the schools are so happy to collaborate and work with us.

“Each of the Leaders has an artistic talent , skilled drummers, dancers and singers and they have a tag-team teaching approach where they plan a session so that they all have a role to play teaching a specific activity .

“We have an inclusion aspect because possibly a lot of the children won’t understand what autism is so we would teach them that it is different to each person and the same with learning disability as well. We would end a typical session with a celebration event or a performance.

“For this new programme there is going to be a musical element but also extracting the skills the leaders have developed over the past years and try to impart them to this next group of young people helping their ability to communicate comfortably in front of other people and developing their ability to work within a team.

“The way that the Leaders have learned to teach is through trial and error. People learn best through experience.

“It’s about extracting and highlighting the skills that they already have and making whatever adjustments we can to the challenges that they have.”

Project Sparks is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and by The National Lottery.

What the Leaders say

Sarah Jane Murry: Erica and Eamonn came to my school Knockavoe Special Needs School, Strabane, looking for two leaders who could potentially go on to teach children.

They picked me and another leader and to be honest before I was picked I was definite 100 percent that I wanted to do this even though I was a bit scared because before the project I was a lot less confident.

The things I do now I couldn’t have done then. I would have been so nervous and having sleepless nights. Back then it was such a challenge for me. It felt really scary at the start , but when we started all the people involved were so lovely and so welcoming.

It was a bit scary going into something where I only knew one other person. But it helped that everyone was at the same level.

It was a great challenge for me at the start.

At the start of Project Sparks we were trained to deliver workshops in dancing, singing and drumming.

Different leaders did different roles and I am a dance leader. I was taught the structure of a dance workshop and that’s what we teach the children.

I love working with children and they give you such a boost of confidence.

Whenever you see them coming out smiling at the end of it and saying that they want to come back, it really gives me hope that I can continue doing this in the future.

Noel McMonagle

I was lucky enough to be involved with Project sparks right from the very beginning.

The first thing Erica said to me was what I felt it was like to be a teacher and that was something that really excited me because I love to try out a lot of new things.

I said to myself this could be a good opportunity for me to try something new.

One of the great things about this project is that it is unique. It takes a young group of adults with disabilities teaching children about music but at the same time it is also teaching them about ourselves.

We have leaders who have both mental and physical disabilities - I have autism - this is a great way to help kids to find out about people with disabilities and to learn to teach them equally.

Once we finish school as autistic people there aren’t that many opportunities across Northern Ireland for us.

Thanks to Project Sparks this is a great opportunity to help people like us.

When I first joined Project Sparks I did a bit of dancing but since then I have been more of a singer.

Working with Project Sparks is very special to me because when we started we are all the same, very shy, not knowing much about how to teach skills.

I feel like I am in a whole new place now. We know each other very, very well and work together as one great team.

Sorcha Friel

I have been here for the past four and a half years.

I was asked to get involved by Eamonn and I have to say I was a bit nervous about it at the start. You never hear of a teacher with autism, which is something that I have. You don’t think that people will take you seriously and you don’t think that you will be able to do it.

Once we got into it, the confidence builds and you find that you can do things you never thought you would. I was never a public speaker - I would sing in public - but would never speak. We love showing that anyone with a disability or not that they can do anything if they put their mind to it. There shouldn’t be a barrier between anyone and what they want to pursue in life.

I have been singing since the age of three and did a lot of singing at Ardnashee School, which was part of Foyleview then.

Music has always been a massive part of my life. When you share your passion for something the children can feel that and it lights a spark within them, which is what our project is all about.

We are one big family and we want to help to bring more people into that family and show them that they can be what they want to be and that they can teach and share their passions and tell their story.

Owen Coyle

I got involved in Project Sparks because I was friends with one of the leaders and I saw this Facebook post about a pilot scheme back in June 2017 .

I was really blown away by all the leaders and what they were doing teaching these children and I knew it was something I really wanted to get involved in.

My mum enrolled me and I joined in 2018 and I can honestly say I have never looked back.

My mum was in folk groups when she was younger and I have been drumming for about six or seven years now.

Music has always been a huge part of my life.

It is very satisfying to pass on the torch of my passion for music to these wonderful people.

It’s great that they can learn how to drum and possibly be in bands in the future.

We use hand drums and we choose songs and make up our own rhythms which are relatively easy for kids to do just to get them interested and started.

You find that some of the children will be shy especially at the start and I can relate to that because before I joined Project Sparks I had major social anxiety where I mostly kept to myself and that was the way I liked it.

But what we are doing is pushing people out of their comfort zones and trying new things.