HAVING once been crippled by anxiety as a teenager, a young Carrigaline woman recently became one of the first ever Irish Girl Guides to secure a major new award.
Aisling Claffey, 24, a marketing executive at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, joined the Girl Guides aged 10. Now, 14 years on, she has risen through the ranks and is in charge of more than 50 children in Ladybirds, Guides and Senior Branch in Carrigaline.
The former Minane Bridge primary school pupil, who attended Colaiste Mhuire secondary school in Crosshaven, is also on the Senior Branch member’s executive and recently became just one of two Irish Girl Guides to receive the Golden Sun Award, launched in 2015.
Aisling did the Golden Sun award over two to three years, with her friend Aoife Leamy, 25, from Newbridge — the duo met at camp ten years ago and have remained best of friends. They have completed a number of Guiding adventures side by side since then, so it only seemed right that they tackle the Golden Sun Award together. The award includes the same components as the Gold Gaisce, with extra Guiding challenges. They completed community challenges, developed life skills and undertook outdoor tasks as well as completing an adventure journey and a residential project.
Aisling and Aoife were so keen that they completed 30 challenges more than they had to! The challenges ranged from craft evenings, discussions and debates, to trying new forms of exercise. They even completed an 80 kilometre hike and camping trip in County Kerry.
Recalling the achievement, Aisling said: “It was great, and I did it with Aoife as well. We met at a camp over 10 years ago and since then we’ve been best friends. We are from different ends of the country, but we’ve remained friends. I wouldn’t have wanted to do the award without her.”
The 24-year-old recalls how her journey with the girl guides began, 14 years ago.
“All the girls in the park were disappearing every Tuesday and one evening they said ‘We all go to Guides on a Tuesday evening’, so I went with them one evening and I never left!
“So I made my way up through Guides and now I am a member of senior branch. But also when I was 18 I took on my own unit, my first unit, the Carrigaline Guides.
“So I started with girls in the park, they all left... but I stuck with it. The reason I wanted to take on my own unit was because l got so much from it myself. If I can give some of that to the girls, in my three units now, I feel I want to give back, because of what I got from it myself.
“I got to travel the world, I got to go to so many countries, through Guiding. My first big trip was to America in 2012, I went to Chicago and took part in an event that looked at Millennium Development Goals (sustainable development goals.) It was all under 18s, that was a massive trip to be involved in, from that it spurred me on and got me interested in other international opportunities. I suppose it is a worldwide organisation and it is great to see it is just more than the 25 girls that you meet in your unit in Carrigaline. We have ten million members around the world.”
Aisling is now able to help the young women in her group enjoy the same experiences she did as a younger Guide.
“I was able to bring my group abroad this year. It was their first international camp, in Georgia, near Russia, there were ten girls, 14 to 15 year old girls. It was great to take part in their culture and learn about guiding in their country as well.”
The tag line of the Irish Girl Guide is ‘give a girl confidence’. Aisling says this certainly rings true of her own experience. “I can certainly say it has given me confidence. It has given me a lot more.
“I suffered with anxiety. I suffered with anxiety in Transition Year/ Fifth year in school and I suppose the way my anxiety worked was being in a place where I was not very comfortable and not knowing what would happen in this place, I was uncomfortable. It became an issue for me. But I never felt uncomfortable in guiding.
“We teach everyone, from when they come in aged five, that guiding is a safe place. That is always something that stood to me. I always knew if I was at a meeting where I felt uncomfortable I could take a step back and I would never be judged for it. Even though I stopped doing so much during those years, Guiding was something I kept on and kept going to. It gave me that place that I could go and feel very comfortable and be the person I knew I was. I could go there, and not feel judged.
“It gave me the chance to face those fears, in a safe place. And that, I suppose, helped me a lot overcome my anxiety.”
Looking back, school was a difficult time, and Aisling said anxiety was still bit of a taboo subject, not spoken of.
“School affected me, it became a place I was not comfortable, especially in fourth / fifth year.
“It is only in the last few years people are a bit more open to talking about anxiety. It was still a taboo subject, that people didn’t really want to talk about. I definitely felt that back then. It is something that I try to be a bit more open with.
“I think everybody has anxiety, they control it in better ways. I am opening talking about it. It is OK. People say ‘it is OK to say it’s OK to not be OK’. It is good to talk about it, so people know there is light at the end of the tunnel. You can get through things.
“We were having a conversation at camp, I opened up a bit, I said ‘I have anxiety’. Someone said ‘How can you have anxiety when you are so confident’. I said ‘yes, I am confident now, because I am comfortable’. That is the problem — you put on a brave face, but inside you are not ok. It was a shock to people, ‘how can you have anxiety when you can be so confident’.
“Guiding gave me a safe space, to face my fears, in a safe place. The best way to overcome your fears, is to face them, but in a safe space.”
Aisling says Guiding is still thriving in her community. She could run an additonal two or three groups in Carrigaline, such is her waiting list, but she always has to be conscious of the child-adult ratio.
“You have to find volunteers, it is hard to get volunteers. The Irish Girl Guides are always open to volunteers.”
It’s been a busy few years for Aisling, on the guiding front and work-wise too.
As well as running her local groups, she has been undertaking the Golden Sun award — which involved things like working towards her driving licence (part of life skills). They also looked at creating bank accounts, setting up savings, studied bank loans — again, all part of life skills.
They also did guiding elements, such as running events, giving training on different things.
Career-wise it has been a successful time too.
After school, Aisling wanted to study Home Economics, but the points jumped massively. Instead she went to do Culinary Studies at CIT, where she did her training to be a chef and did placements. Then she went on to do the Degree in Hospitality Management; “Which was more open to the real world, so I would be more than a chef,” she explained.
She then went on to Level 8 — Business and Planning Management and got work experience during that. This led to a Masters in Marketing. The course involved a work placement, and Aisling found herself on a six month placement in Páirc Uí Chaoimh — when that was up, they renewed her contract.
She believes her experience in Guiding has helped her along this career path too.
“I ran my first international event when I was 15 or 16. I continued to run international events, with a few hundred people attending.
“Part of my job is sales, so at the age of 24, having eight years of some experience running events, it has to stand to me. They are very different types of event, but even seeing from an operational view, being able to oversee how best run. Even time management, it was good experience to have.”
I asked Aisling if there’s a place in modern society for Guiding.
“Of course. We obviously have our traditions, it has been around more than 100 years, at the same time we don’t do everything the same way. We don’t go camping with tents anymore where you put two sheets together. You bring your sleeping bag with your new lightweight tent. We do the same thing, but they change as time goes on.”
An example of this was the introduction of the Golden Sun Award — which was only introduced a few years go “because we have to move with modern society,” Aisling said.
She also pointed to the Guides involvement in the ‘Free Being Me’ campaign, a body confidence campaign run by Dove. The message of that campaign resonates with what she has learned through guiding; “You are allowed to accept yourself, you are allowed to be yourself. Free being me.”
MORE ABOUT THE GUIDES
Irish Girl Guides has around 12,000 members, ranging in age from five to 30. 1,800 volunteer leaders are involved.
Guiding started in Ireland in 1911 and operates throughout the 26 counties, with leaders providing an informal educational programme of fun and challenging activities that foster confidence and leadership skills in girls and young women, enabling them to become responsible citizens. They can choose to earn a wide range of badges, including disability awareness, world cultures, science investigator, online surfer, STEM and engineering. Irish Girl Guides welcomes new members from age five plus and adult volunteers from age 18 plus. No previous Guiding experience is necessary. For more see www.irishgirlguides.ie or tel: 01 6683898.