Cast your mind back to when you were ten years old, and try to recall what your hobbies were or filled your days.  The general consensus in the GSAP office seems to be sports, 11+ prep and seemingly endless days playing ‘out the front’.  None of us however could claim that we were volunteering, which is exactly what a fresh-faced young Aileen Mellon did in 1999 when she boldly turned up at the door of the then-new ‘Off The Streets’ initiative shortly after her tenth birthday.  ‘I’m just that nosy I wanted to see what was going on before everyone else did’ she laughs when I ask what made her be so selfless with her time, even at such a young age.  Of course throughout our chat, the real drivers surface when the mum of one talks passionately about her love for her home community and her desire to contribute to better future for the area.   ‘I would love my son Noah to live in Galliagh when he grows up, and I can help improve that outlook now by supporting the current Galliagh youth’.  This initial experience with Off the Streets proved to be the catalyst for a profession that has spanned eighteen years so far and awarded Aileen with high profile awards For Leadership and Community Contribution from the Credit Union and Derry City Council, the latter of which is pride of place in her mother’s house. 

Born and bred in Galliagh, Aileen attended Slievemore Primary School, St.Cecilia’s College and North West Regional College.  Throughout her secondary and further education, Aileen juggled volunteering with her studies, so striking a balance has always been a critical part of her being successful in both areas.   

Nothing however could have prepared her for the challenges of life as a busy working mother, particularly within the community and voluntary sector were irregular hours are the norm. ‘I am lucky I have a granny-sitter who can be flexible, because in this role you have to be ready to act at any time of day or night with immediate support. 

In general I have a strong support network and without them the reality is that I wouldn’t be able to work, and I can’t imagine how I would feel if I wasn’t able to do what I loved but it’s a devastating challenge faced by many women’.  Asked if she ever feels tempted to take on a more regular nine to five; ‘The only appeal would be the structure and routine, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled.  At the end of the day, what drives you as a person is what drives you, and the fulfilment I get from youth work is more important than knowing I will be home at five past five. And I am too nosy to give it all up! Even when I was off on maternity, I still volunteered to attend staff meetings to keep in touch with the team and abreast of what was happening in the community.  This helped me with any anxieties I had about stepping away from my job for nine months as this was the longest break I ever had from Off the Streets’’.

As someone who contributes so much to her local community, we chatted to Aileen about how she relaxes in her own personal time and what advice she has for aspiring volunteers.

How would you describe yourself? Well I would describe myself as easy going, but I don’t know if anyone else would say that! And also giddy!

Do you have a nickname? Not to my face anyway, but I would say I do!

What do you love the most about Galliagh?  Galliagh is unique in the sense where there is a lot of space for the youth to play in.  It’s funny, although we are called ‘off the streets’ we are encouraging youth to actually use this space in a constructive way, we aren’t trying to hide them all away in their houses.  I am a big advocate of promoting a child’s right to play, and being there at ground level and providing on the street support is so important.  Galliagh is the perfect layout for that. 

What’s your most embarrassing moment?  Asking for an epidural when Noah was already in my arms!

As a busy working mum, how do you relax or do you ever get time to?  It is busy and relaxing time can be hard to come by, but I am lucky the things that I do to relax are simple things.  A really hot bath when I have the house to myself is my all-time favourite. 

What makes you laugh?  Noah when he tries to tell a story, or join in a conversation.  He’s the funniest person I know.  

What’s the best compliment you have ever received?  Anything to do with how good Noah is, it makes me so proud to hear how well he is doing. 

What makes you happy?  Noah and Domino’s pizza, I better say in that order.  

What makes you angry?  Lateness, I hate waiting on people.  Be there when you say you are going to be there people!

What has been the high point of your life to date?  Without a doubt, having Noah.  He is the funniest, the happiest, proudest and just the best thing I have ever done in my whole life.  And labour was the most embarrassing!

And the low point? The death of my friend Di.  She was so young and it seemed so unfair, particularly because she had a young daughter too.  Di was on the transplant waiting list for such a long time and was so positive and brave the whole time, it felt unfair that she wasn’t rewarded for that strength at the end.   It was hard going back to work then after, the youth had their own needs and I was back at work in the position to support their needs, and act as If everything was ok at my end.  It was a really difficult time for everyone but particularly for Di’s family, my heart just broke for them.  I would really encourage organ donation, its such a powerful gift to a person.

What is your most treasured possession?  Nothing, just my son.  Having children changes your perspective, he is all that matters in that sense.   

How would you like to be remembered? As being from Galliagh!

What’s your motto?  Better to be a happy window cleaner than an unhappy professor.  My mammy always said that to us and I say it to the children I work with, it helps them grasp the importance of being fulfilled and happy and how rewarding that is, free of expectations.   

Finally, as someone who’s work has had a significant impact in her local community what advice would you have for anyone who is interested in volunteering?   If you feel like you want to do help, then you probably have an underlying passion for it so try it out.  The worst that can happen is that it isn’t what you expected so there is nothing to lose.  The team of volunteers are so helpful too and they are a great support to each other, they are really like minded people so you will gain from meeting them and hearing their experiences.  It can be challenging to place everyone where they feel they are best suited and people sometimes try a few ‘taster’ periods to give them experience in different areas.  Its better for the volunteer and the recipient if they are both taking something positive from the experience.  The volunteer should feel rewarded and fulfilled and the client should feel like they have been supported.