A youth worker whose teenage struggle with her sexuality motivated her to help other isolated young people accept their identity has received a top award.
Hannah Rowan has supported hundreds of vulnerable young people as they come to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity during the 18 years she has worked with the West Rhyl Young People’s Project.
As manager of the project, Hannah oversees the charity’s Viva youth groups – a weekly meeting place for young people up to the age of 25 providing activities, education opportunities and support from specialist lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) staff.
Working alongside North Wales Police’s diversity unit, the 44-year-old has been instrumental in developing the service to provide emotional support to young people and their families and to create a safe environment for members to be themselves without fear of prejudice or judgement.
She has also spearheaded educational work within schools across Denbighshire and beyond to increase awareness of LGBT issues and to promote tolerance and acceptance.
Her commitment and dedication to the project has now been officially recognised by North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Winston Roddick CB QC who presented her with the Equality and Diversity Award at a glittering ceremony at the Kinmel Manor Hotel in Abergele.
Hannah, who lives locally, said: “Viva is the longest running LGBT youth group in the whole of Wales and we were the only one for a very long time. Usually, we’re under the radar and don’t get the recognition that other groups get so it’s really lovely and heartening to get that recognition.
“North Wales Police were really pioneers when it came to supporting diverse groups and we’ve been part of that journey. We’ve seen the progression over the years and their support and commitment to making things better in North Wales.”
Hannah admits coming to terms with her own sexuality as a young woman inspired her to help other young people going through the same process.
“I didn’t come out until I was 21,” she said.
“I was really afraid. It doesn’t do anyone’s emotional health any good to keep that inside for so long. It hurts a lot of people around you.
“I had supportive parents who were very encouraging. I’m so grateful for that but I see many young people who don’t have that and even young people who’ve been left homeless or physically hurt by family and friends as a result of coming out.
“Thankfully, that’s not the case for the majority but it’s something that drives you to try and make a difference. Having experienced what it’s like to be afraid to come out as a teenager and be ashamed of who you are, it helps my work a lot. It can be a very dark place.”
Hannah, who studied art and drama at Roehampton Institute in London, worked with young people with learning disabilities at Pengwern College in Bodelwyddan for eight years prior to and alongside getting a job at the project in 1997.
She was seconded to the Viva project and has led the service ever since, providing support to more than 500 young people at youth groups in Rhyl, Wrexham and previously in other areas of North Wales.
“Initially, when we first launched, we kept a low profile as the climate at the time was not particularly favourable towards LGBT work,” said Hannah, who was nominated for her award by Greg George from North Wales Police’s diversity unit.
“We had adverts in the paper but we couldn’t tell people where we were meeting so we could protect the anonymity of the members.”
The service has grown since then and now at any one time there are 20 people attending the groups, from a total of 50 members.
“It’s like any other youth group with fun activities, cooking sessions, film nights and trips to the theatre but we also explore serious issues and hold sexual health workshops,” said Hannah.
“That period in your life when you are coming to terms with who you are is very scary and isolating. It’s very important there’s a place where people can go and explore who they are in a safe way without people judging them.
“Young LGBT people feel like they’re in a minority. Being part of a group like this, they become part of the majority for the first time in their lives which is very powerful and self-affirming. That’s the important aspect of the group.
“Young people need to be around other young people who affirm their value. The safety of the group allows people to explore the fluidity of their sexual orientation and gender – it doesn’t have to be fixed.”
The project also works closely with parents to help them understand LGBT issues and adjust more easily to their child’s identity. Sometimes, it is parents who initially refer their child to the youth group.
“We have young people in the group who’ve been brought to us by their parents who’ve asked for help,” she said.
“On the other hand, we also have young people whose parents don’t know they’re coming. We help those young people and advise them on the safest way of coming out to their parents.
“We tell parents that they’re experiencing something of a journey themselves, a kind of joint awakening. They need time to comprehend what is going on and they need time to adjust.
“The parents themselves have to go through the process of coming out themselves to other members of the family. Every single one of those transactions has to be risk assessed by them, and the repercussions of the decision considered.”
As part of the Viva project, youth workers go into high schools within the Denbighshire area delivering age-appropriate anti-bullying workshops addressing prejudice in relation to LGBT issues. This contributes to a safer school environment and helps to promote healthier attitudes, said Hannah.
One of the earliest decisions when Viva was established was that all staff would be openly identified as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; with some staff being former members of the group.
“It’s about providing a role model for young people – you can work in a variety of careers and be comfortable about who you are and be respected for who you are irrespective of your sexual orientation or gender identity,” she added.
Commissioner Roddick decided to launch his own awards scheme last year to honour the unsung crime fighting heroes of the community.
Mr Roddick, who in his time has served as a police officer, a barrister and a judge, said: “One thing all our winners have in common is that they make North Wales a better and safer place to live and work.
“There are a great number of people who do a lot of good in the community by helping North Wales Police and these silent workers go way beyond anybody else to make a contribution and ensure their communities are safe.
“In the overwhelming number of cases, this a personal commitment made without expectation of any kind of reward or recognition.
“I created the awards so that these unsung heroes and heroines of communities across North Wales could receive the recognition they deserve and to encourage others to emulate their good example.”