Fitness for life 28/11/2008
Sheena Matthews

Sheena Matthews leaves school at age 14 without direction. After participating in a European Social Fund project, she becomes a trainer for gym instructors and coaches. Now she has set herself the goal of going to medical school.

Energy and enthusiasm

It is September in South Dublin, Ireland. Sheena Matthews arrives early at the leisure centre where she works.

She’s a tutor on a course training young people as gym instructors, sports coaches and preparing them for other activity-based careers. First up is a classroom-based lesson teaching anatomy, then straight into leading a 40-minute step-aerobics class, followed by an equally demanding session on spinning bikes. It is all in a morning’s work for the 27-year-old.

It looks tiring, but Sheena is full of energy and enthusiasm as she talks about her job. “I really like teaching. It’s great to see the students transforming their lives by becoming more active,” she says.

The course she teaches, Spoirt Teic, is a local training initiative provided by FAS (Ireland's National Training and Employment Authority) and co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund. “The course gives students the means to get a job in a leisure centre and an international qualification as a sports coach or fitness instructor,” says Sheena. The programme can be tailored to suit the students’ preferences. “We try to get them experience in what they want to get into, whether it’s sports coaching, gym instruction or teaching dance.

“My aim is to get people into jobs. And to help them get what they want out of life,” she continues. “I see new students come in shy and then watch them transform. It really builds their self confidence and communication skills.”

The training has a high success rate, she says. “About 90% get jobs in sports, leisure or activities.”

A life-changing experience

If Sheena is an enthusiastic ambassador for the course, she has a good reason – a few years ago she was a student herself. The nine-month course “totally turned my life around”, she declares.

“I remember the situation I was in before,” she explains. “I left school when I was 14 or 15. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I never had any direction or goals.”

She took on different kinds of employment, including waitressing, cleaning, and working in a market. “I went from job to job,” she says, “bad job to bad job. And yet I was always a good worker. They wanted to promote me, but I knew I didn’t want to do that job for ever, so I would always leave.”

Then she became pregnant at 18. “I was happy at the time, but now I think I was a little too young. Having a baby is a lot of responsibility at that age,” she points out. As a single mother, Sheena became reliant on welfare payments to support herself and her baby, Megan. It was hard personally as well as financially – she put on weight and suffered from post-natal depression.

“About a year after Megan was born I decided to do something to change my situation. I didn’t want her to look at me as nothing,” says Sheena. “I wanted to set an example.”

Increasing self-confidence

Exercising and professional guidance proved to be the big turning point. “I joined a gym and I did a personal development course.” She lost weight and her confidence grew. “It made me realise that there was more out there for me.”

She continues: “I remember going to an aerobics class and seeing the instructor. She looked great and she seemed so together. I said to myself ‘I want to do her job’.”

When Sheena asked the instructor for advice, she told her about the Spoirt Teic course. Sheena enrolled and felt great benefits. “The first time I spoke in front of a class I was shaking and nervous. But as the months went by I became much more confident. Now I really enjoy being up in front of the students.”

Medical school

After graduating, she worked in gyms and as a dance instructor, before getting a job at the South Tallaght leisure centre where the courses are based. She was initially working as a gym and dance teacher, but knew that she really wanted to be a tutor on the course. She began covering for other tutors. “I used to work 11 days in a row. I used to be so tired, but I really wanted to get a job as a tutor. I wasn’t going to give up.”

Sheena’s experiences have taught her that she can change her life. “I’ve learnt how to set goals and go after them.”

She has more plans for the future. “My next step would be to go to medical school,” she says. “I know I can do it. Even if it takes a long time to do it, I’ll stick with it.”