Young people enjoy being away from their iPhones more than you think

Tralee man Jimmy O’Donnell has been a member of Tralee Scouts for nearly half a century. He chats to Stephen Fernane about his time as scout leader, and how the organisation is a great way to develop self-confidence in a social media age

Tralee Scout leader Jimmy O’Donnell
Tralee Scout leader Jimmy O’Donnell

Tralee man Jimmy O’Donnell has been a member of Tralee Scouts for nearly half a century. He chats to Stephen Fernane about his time as scout leader, and how the organisation is a great way to develop self-confidence in a social media age.

The Tralee branch of the scouts first started in 1929 under the direction of Tom O’Brien. But for Strand Road man Jimmy O’Donnell it all started in 1969 when he attended his first scout meeting in Ballymullen Barracks under scout leader, Michael Burke. Jimmy took to it like a duck to water as the sense of adventure that came with camping and walking through Foley’s Glen as a boy left a lasting impression on him.

“To be honest I never really had much interest in sport growing up in Strand Road in the late 1960s. My parents encouraged me to join the scouts. I took to it straight away and I’ve been involved ever sense,” he says.

Having started out as a scout leader when he was 18, Jimmy served as commissioner of the north Kerry branch in 1999 and was elected commissioner of the Kerry Board of Scouting Ireland in 2004. In 2002 he was given a civic reception by Tralee Town Council for his services to scouting and to the youth of Tralee. But one of Jimmy’s most treasured honours is the Order of Cú Chulainn award he received in 2007 – the highest order given by Scouting Ireland. Tralee is a town close to Jimmy’s heart and he was a founding member of ‘Towards a Better Tralee’, and was one of the first volunteers to set up Tralee Tidy Town.

In 2019 Jimmy will celebrate his fiftieth-year as a member of the scouts, an organisation, he believes, has stayed true to its core values of developing youth, which is all the more relevant today given that many young people are enmeshed by technology and in danger of losing their sense of adventure and creativity.

Jimmy is currently 1st Kerry Scouts group leader in Tralee, which has over 80 boys and girls with an ever growing waiting list of people looking to join.

Jimmy said joining the scouts is similar to joining any sporting club except the emphasis is less on developing a specific or singular skill relevant to that sport. With the scouts, the aim is to develop the whole of a person’s character.

“Most of what we do best is done in isolation compared to sporting events. There’s no crowd cheering you on when you’re canoeing down a lake or hillwalking,” he said.

“There is something in scouting for people of all abilities. I’ve seen shy kids coming through the scouts and applying their own skills. It might be setting up a tent, or lighting a camp fire, but these small responsibilities help build a young person’s character and give them self-confidence.”

Like most readers, this writer is also unfamiliar with much of what the scouts do and what’s involved. Ages 6 to 18 are divided into different groups to facilitate better development and progression among members, while this is also used as a stepping stone for creating future scout leaders.

Chatting to Jimmy also makes you realise just how important a bulwark the scouts is in a world that changes fast for young people. He insists that most field-trips nowadays are technology and IPhone free zones – something that’s not as traumatic as you might think for kids.

“A few years ago we were camping in Tipperary when a scout approached me and said: ‘it was great not having technology for a week’. I thought it was a strange comment at first but the more I thought about it, it made sense. Young people enjoy being away from their IPhones more than you might think. They enjoy listening to the natural sounds of nature around them. This makes the scouts an important outlet for children.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the scouts today is finding more adult leaders to help supervise activities. The multiple distractions and choices that children have today means the scouts are competing for volunteers with other social activity groups.

“When I was a young fella you either played football, joined the scouts, or became an altar boy. That was about the run of it. But today, especially in a large town like Tralee, there’s more variety out there. That’s why attracting more leaders is important to us. Currently, we have around twelve leaders but we’re always looking for new leaders to join. The scouts is all about working in a small team. Today we hear so much about ‘developing team ethic’ and ‘developing strategies’. The scouts were doing this in the 1970s when no one was thinking about it.”

Jimmy is keen to stress that while the scouts play an important role in helping to shape an individual’s character, it also creates an unseen tourism dividend. International scout groups regularly visit Tralee to enjoy the surrounding mountains and countryside, thus creating a mini boost to the local economy. The scouts’ headquarters at Matt Talbot Road is used extensively by outside scout groups. Developing a campsite exclusively for the scouts in Tralee is another of Jimmy’s ambitions. He would like to see an area of around five acres set aside for the scouts to camp and enhance their activities. This would cut costs and create a year-round location for the scouts.

“We had a scout group from Germany visit Tralee just a few weeks ago and this is a contribution to the local economy that people don’t see. I know for a fact if we had a campsite here we would fill it all the time. This is the most camped county in Ireland with excellent terrain. The benefits of scouting is now part of Kerry’s tourism strategy. Our hall was built by the people of Tralee and if we can give something back to the economy, all the better.”

Lastly, Jimmy would like to see the Tralee scouts develop by extending its adventure section as this would create more leaders for the future; leaders that might one day return to lead the next generation of scouts. The scouts will be 90-years-old in 2019 and ideas on how this should be celebrated are also top of the agenda right now.

“The scouts help foster friendship and camaraderie among young people. There’s something for everyone and adults shouldn’t be put off joining as leaders just because they think it’s something you have to be involved in all your life. You can join at any time. The town of Tralee has given us great support over the years whenever we fundraise, and that’s always been appreciated.”