CHILDREN in rural areas of Northern Ireland "have felt particularly isolated" by the coronavirus pandemic and will need extra support in the coming months.
Leon Hughes, who runs emotion-through-art activities for young people, said children have been expressing "acute loneliness" and how much they missed their friends as they return to her Co Tyrone summer school.
"I am working with children from the towns, cities and countryside. As we have started our summer scheme, I have been struck by youngsters from country areas who appear to have felt the separation more keenly," she said.
The 44-year-old owns and runs the Dungannon-based Artfunkle art workshops project and has seen its summer scheme booked out this month, with councils, schools, youth and community groups and health trusts bookings.
Education minister Peter Weir announced £12m for summer activities, while a free school meals scheme for the summer holidays will go ahead after cash was found from existing Stormont budgets.
Ms Hughes, who worked at South West College for 12 years delivering personal development programmes for marginalised young people, said they "couldn't have come at a better time for all our children, but more so the children of farmers and rural workers".
"I am a qualified youth worker, a further education teacher and an artist and I have never seen the level of relief among children to get back to seeing their friends and meeting new ones.
"So many, especially the rural kids, say they have missed their friends from school. We have a lot of children who have been extremely lonely and we are working through their emotions with them as we deliver our summer scheme.
"My courses were always about using art to discuss issues such as bullying, body image and to promote positive mental health. However we are drilling down on the emotions of loneliness and isolation as that is what the children are now needing help with."
She has been working with children from across Tyrone and to Lisnaskea in Co Fermanagh.
"The relief is palpable when they come into the workshops now.
"They don't seem to mind the social distancing and they are experts at it and really good at abiding by the keep safe rules. They ask to use the sanitiser and they just take it in their stride and understand they will be doing their art workshop at a single desk and not a big table with other kids."
Ms Hughes said they are focusing on "helping children express how they have felt and continue to feel during the pandemic over the summer" and called for enhanced service for rural children "who have not been able to see friends as easily as city kids".
"It's important now that we put resources into alleviating child loneliness in rural areas."