Sports can change lives. So can engaging with the great outdoors. Benny Cullen of Canoeing Ireland has seen how combining the two can make a positive and lasting impact.

“I’m the development officer with Canoeing Ireland, the national body that represents canoeing and kayaking,” he explains. “I oversee instructor education, awards schemes and qualifications as well as running initiatives to get more people out on the water.”

Some of those people are young and disadvantaged. “We try to use canoeing and kayaking to teach them life lessons about personal development, self-confidence and leadership skills,” says Benny. “But until now, it’s been too short term. You can’t make much difference to someone’s lifestyle or outlook in a few hours. Real change takes time.”

The Coca-Cola Thank You Fund allowed Canoeing Ireland to give 40 young people the time they needed. “We applied for funding in 2014 and started our instructor training initiative this February,” says Benny. “Five youth services from waterside communities here in Dublin – the Adventure Sports Project, Dublin Youth Service, Saint Monica’s Youth Service, Cabra for Youth and Catholic Youth Care – nominated teenagers and young adults and we’ve been working with them once a week for the past seven months. There are still two months to go before they graduate.”

The experience has already changed those 40 youngsters. They’ve become proficient in kayaking and are now learning how to share their skills with others. “They’ll graduate as professional instructors with a whole set of skills they can bring to their lives in the future,” says Benny.

He and his colleagues have seen other changes too. “They have a proficiency in and a love for their new sport,” he says. “They have also come to appreciate the environment. This can be seen in their environmental awareness and their new-found disapproval of littering as well as in their sense of personal responsibility. At first, they would leave everything behind on the canal for someone else to pack up and put away. Now, they pick up after each other. They’ve come full circle.

Dublin City Council Youth Service training for the Sea Crossing

The young people have grown in other ways too. “They’ve got leadership skills and great self-confidence,” says Benny. “They can speak in front of strangers now, which was something they couldn’t do before. They themselves often comment on the progress they are making.”

None of these young people were in school or working prior to enrolling in the training initiative. “They were among the most disadvantaged people of all, but now they see they’re good at something and they’re proud to be good at it,” says Benny. “They see a future for themselves. They’ll have a professional qualification and if nothing else, they’ll be able to pass their skills on to others in their communities.”

Benny’s own path to canoeing and kayaking was totally different to these youngsters’. “It’s a meandering tale,” he laughs. “When I was 12 years old, my ambition was to be just like my cousin who had a white water rafting company in France. He told me I’d have to learn to kayak, so I did.”

For a while, Benny appeared to have abandoned his childhood ambition in favour of a career in engineering. But he never stopped kayaking and after graduating, he built artificial courses for kayaking and canoeing at the Athens and Beijing Olympics.

Dublin City Council Youth Service training for the Sea Crossing

“I was getting my car fixed eight years ago when my mechanic told me about this job with Canoeing Ireland,” says Benny. “He said it was made for me. I applied and I’m still here.”

It’s where he intends to stay, and for the next two months, he’ll be focussed on making sure all 40 young people make it to their graduation. “We’re doing our best to keep them motivated,” he says. “They’re going to complete a crossing of the Irish Sea from Scotland to Ireland on September 22nd and a few days later, most of them are going to take part in the Liffey Descent, which takes place right here in Ireland and is one of the world’s most exciting canoeing events.”

Benny is so grateful to Coca-Cola for giving Canoeing Ireland the opportunity to play a positive role in these young people’s lives. “It’s fantastic to see a commercial enterprise investing in community projects for the good of the people,” he says. “They’ve allowed us to show that sports and outdoor activity can have a meaningful impact on young people’s development. Together, we’ve been able to change minds and improve lives.”

This article was commissioned via NewsCred's NewsRoom and written by freelance contributor Sharon Ní Chonchúir.