The Leaving Cert By Numbers

Team Work 2

At the Cork Life Centre we spent the most extraordinary day yesterday sitting with our young people as they opened results most had never dreamed of achieving. Most of these young people in fact at many stages had given up on the idea that they would ever complete Leaving Certificate due to their life experiences and their experiences in the education system.  Don our Director was interviewed on 96fm yesterday morning and very succinctly and eloquently explained-‘Our students have had to climb mountains and were then asked to do a 100 yard sprint at the end’ We sat with 11 young people yesterday who had not coped with, had struggled with or had been rejected by Ireland’s mainstream education system. Having effectively been let down by the system you can imagine the privilege it is and the pride we take in showing these young people most importantly but also those who might have doubted or overlooked them that they do matter, that they’re capable and that there is so much they can achieve and contribute.

In our work we promote balanced and measured views about the importance of the Leaving Cert. Far too often, and for far too many young people the Leaving Cert becomes associated with a ‘year of hell’ with being the ‘ultimate decider of one’s future’ with being the only ‘measurement for success’. The success in examinations our students celebrated yesterday is just one among many ways in which they have been successful during their journeys with us and often-times not what they will remember or take with them as they move on through their lives.

The number of the day for us yesterday was 11 and the feeling was joy. But as we and our students got to grips with the new Leaving Cert grading system yesterday I started to think about the Leaving Cert in numbers.

58,543 students received Leaving Cert results yesterday across Ireland. Most of these students will have spent 6 years in a system leading them to one set of exams that measure their accomplishments out of a score of 600. We used to have letters and numbers to indicate achievement –A1’s, B2’s, C3’s etc. This year we got numbers ranging from 1-8.

But let’s look a little deeper at these numbers and think about some of the numbers that often get less focus:

This figure of 58,543 represents those students who complete their secondary education. And we focus on them because they are the majority. But we have another somewhat stubborn figure in our education system-It is 10-representing the 10% of children and young people who do not complete their education and receive the ‘Early School Leavers’ tag and label. We never hear about them on Leaving Cert day but they were very much on our mind at the Cork Life Centre.

We were proud of the achievements of our 11 young people who very likely could have remained uncounted on August 16th-Leaving Cert Results day. But we were disheartened by another number that keeps haunting us-the more than 120 young people we had to refuse placements to this year due to lack of capacity to cater for them.

For too significant a proportion of children and young people our education system just doesn’t add up to meeting their needs. Some children can’t play this numbers game-they get too tired, too lonely, too sad,  too frustrated.

I’m thinking of the children that don’t manage in school because they are seen as having too many difficult behaviours and how these children often can’t find anyone to search for or understand the meaning of their behaviour. I’m thinking of the children lost in the sea of the numbers of other children around them-they simply cannot cope with Ireland’s large class sizes-they can’t keep up, they are too anxious-they need more help, more support, more care than our system can provide. I’m thinking of the children that are already facing so many challenges and obstacles in their personal or social lives that algebra, comprehensions, essay-writing become just insurmountable-without having some other needs met first.

I’m also thinking of the children and young people who come to Ireland under the most difficult circumstances to seek asylum, enter the Irish education system-a culture, curriculum and climate they are not familiar with, sit their Leaving Cert in a language often not their first or their own only to find they cannot enter third level education. Because to do so would require large finances-the number here is 10,000. These young people would need 10,000 euros minimum to pursue their education at university level.

Here are some more much smaller but related numbers:

5 is the number of years an asylum seeking child needs to spend in the Irish education system to quality for third level education in spite of the fact that their families will have often fled their country of origin for fear of death.

4 is the number of applicants who were successful in the last two years in accessing 3rd Level education via the governments scheme for allowing asylum seekers access to higher education.

I return again to the number of 58,543 which our Department of Education and our Minister for Education were happy to speak about and celebrate yesterday. But we did not hear about the 10% of young people who have fallen through the cracks of our education system. We did the maths quickly. If 58,543 represents the 90% of young people who complete their Leaving Certificate and finish school then we can put a rough figure on the number of young people who didn’t get there at 6504.

6504 young people we don’t recall hearing anything about yesterday. And the government will argue they have taken alternative routes-Youthreach and other training programmes. I commend the young people who have done so and encourage that there be alternatives available to young people. But a large percentage of the above figure will have ended up with no opportunities to progress in education and will become part of another number, another statistic-NEETs.

NEET’s are young people aged 16-21 years not in education, employment or training in any given country in any given year. In 2014 Ireland’s percentage of NEET’s was 21% with the EU average at 15%. These numbers must be part of the Leaving Cert story also and their relevance recognised.

What seems clear as we look at the numbers and do the maths is that our Education system continues to fall short-we need a new formula, new numbers, a new equation that works for all children and young people and leaves no child behind.

We would like to return to the number 11 that we started with-a number which might feel small and insignificant to some but for our community represents so many life-changing journeys and achievements . We would like to thank the 11 wonderful young people we handed results to yesterday for letting us into their lives, allowing us to know them, struggle with them, learn from them, encourage them and celebrate with them. When you choose to work with stories as we do rather than statistics the outcomes, the joy, the satisfaction is truly immeasurable.  You just can’t put a number on it.

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The Magic of Volunteering

 

I was at work yesterday pottering around waiting on the arrival of a potential volunteer  I was meeting(something I am always hoping to be doing at this time of the year!) I spotted quite by chance out of the corner of a tired eye a brown envelope that had landed beneath the letterbox.  This was a bit odd! Post is a morning ritual. Picking it up I noted the following handwritten on the envelope-Memory stick -The Life Centre . Sad but true I was intrigued and even got briefly romantic notions of a psychological thriller type scenario- what was on this memory stick!-a sure sign I’ve been watching too much Netflix and not spending enough time with young people! Tentatively I opened it to find a beautiful letter accompanying true to the envelope’s word a small silver memory stick.

Blog Photo

The letter was from a volunteer who had worked with us almost two years previously. Though he had to leave at the time to pursue other work it was more than clear the young people had carved out a place in his heart and his mind. They have a habit of doing that! They’re really good at it and they don’t even have to try!  Since his departure it had been on his mind to put together some notes and presentations that might support young people in their studies. But he didn’t just think about it, he did it! And while it might sound small it made my whole afternoon, my day and beyond I’m sure. That envelope had flitted in through our red door like it was nothing but it represents everything.  Because it got me thinking about all the wonderful people who have walked through that red door and given their time to work with our brilliant young people for 12 weeks, for 6 months, for a year, for 8 years in some cases. And they didn’t all leave memory sticks, but they all left their mark!

So I spend the evening thinking and eventually feeling that need to put pen to paper or far less satisfactory- finger tips to awful tablet-type keypad. Thinking about all the marks left in my own heart by the beautiful , authentic acts of love and support I have witnessed from volunteers in our community down through the years.

I think about the amazing, gentle, free-spirited friend who introduced a young man to music and the guitar and opened up his world to so many new possibilities. I think about the very charming, laid back man who created a bond with a hard to reach young person through their mutual love of Scrubs. I think of the people who dropped a young person to and from boxing twice weekly after-hours because they couldn’t bear to see this love of sport lost. I think of all the people who have stayed on a Friday afternoon to help with cleaning(we don’t have the luxury of a cleaner!) when likely they’d have preferred be anywhere else in the world! I think of the many thousands of times, countless times that volunteers have stayed late, come in early, worked a Saturday because it was about something that mattered for young people and therefore mattered to them. I think of the passion and excitement of volunteers when they find that thing that matters to a young person and a way to support them to build on it and explore it. I think about volunteers who have mopped tears (their own as well as young people’s) and sat through the worst of times with them, celebrated the very best of times with them. The volunteers who text, phone, email after hours, during holidays to check in with me about young people. The volunteers who care enough to be angry when young people are just not getting what they deserve from life and from the system but then do something- turn that anger into something productive. The volunteers who come year-on- year when saying goodbye and worry they got more from the young people than they contributed. I think of the former volunteer who travelled from the UK to be with us and the young people when we tragically lost a student this year. And I can only hope these people knew how much these acts little and large mattered and how they still matter.

It has been nothing short of extraordinary to see time and time again that it is those volunteering their time, their heart, their talent , their energy who seem to be the most likely to go the extra mile, the extra 10 miles, stay the course for the marathon! I hope some of you might be reading this and might know who you are.

So I went this afternoon to meet this potential volunteer with all this in my head and my heart, and I talked(probably too much) , I listened and above all I noted her eyes danced when she spoke about young people. And I said to her ‘You obviously love young people, that’s about 75% of the job’ And I laughed but I meant it because it’s true.

Rachel Lucey

Local teens overcome obstacles with Cork Life Centre

Roisin Burke(As featured on the Evening Echo 08.06.2017)

Delighted to share this article demonstrating the strength, resilience and talent of our young people.

MORE than 6,000 students are taking the Leaving Certificate exams and among them will be a number of students from the Cork Life Centre.

Cork Life Centre is an organisation who works with people to achieve their State Exams against all odds.

Because as we all know, studying for your Leaving Certificate is a big job, but for some people who already have their hands full with personal problems, it can seem like an impossible task.

The school helps students overcome a number of issues ranging from mental health to behavioural problems to excel at academic endeavours.

Director of the Cork Life Centre Don O’Leary said it’s great to see young people from the centre working towards their goals.

“Here are the centre, we like to work to the strengths of the individual, one size does not fit all.” Don said anyone who has completed the Junior Certificate programme at the centre has wanted to go on to do the Leaving Certificate and he thinks this is down to the ethos of the centre.

“Our discipline is very different, we have one rule at the centre and that is respect. Every day is a new day, something happens it is dealt with and then it is gone.” Since 2006, the centre has been increasing its numbers and this year the centre had to turn away 138 students from their door because they do not have the resources to handle the demand.

Open since 2000, 125 people have completed their exams through the centre and on the day of the exams, Don had this advice for people sitting down to their tests.

“My advice to students is not to worry, you have the work done and remember, exams do not determine who you are going to be.”

Emma

Emma Doyle, Cork Life Centre. Pic: Eddie O’Hare

CENTRE GAVE EMMA A NEW LEASE OF LIFE

Sitting the Leaving Certificate is something Emma Doyle always wanted to do, but for awhile it did not look like a possibility.

Eating disorders, cyberbullying, self-harm, drugs and anxiety are just some of the obstacles that cluttered the path of Emma’s education, however, the teenager persevered against the odds to continue learning and now looks set to follow her dream of studying law.

The trouble has already started by the time Emma reached secondary school.

In sixth class, Emma’s friends had told her she was fat and she developed an eating disorder that plagued her for a number of years.

As well as this, Emma started to self-harm in an attempt to gain control over her situation. “I felt like it was the only way to deal with it. It gave me control over what was going on. I was going to see counsellors as well, but nothing could take away the pain.” Then Emma was the victim of cyberbullying. Through various social media networks, including AskFM, other children ridiculed Emma and left her feeling trapped and alone.

Emma was also pushed and laughed at in the halls of her school.

“Things became unbearable and I tried to take my life.”

Emma took a concoction of pills, including antihistamines and paracetamol, which made her muscles knot in her sleep and she woke her mom up screaming from her bed.

After this Emma moved to another school in her area. The day Emma came out of hospital, she had an interview to go to a new school.

“I looked up to this school, I thought it was an amazing school and the girls there seemed to have everything that I wanted to have.

“For awhile everything was good. I did my Junior Certificate and had a lot of fun in Transition Year, but then things started to change.

“I was segregated from my classmates, deleted from my group chat and loads of other things like that that just made me feel like I had no self-worth.

“I started taking drugs to get relief from what was going on in my head. I wanted to lose more weight and I wanted to feel a sense of happiness.” Emma tried to take her life a second time. This time Emma took a number of pills and tried to hang herself, but she was found by a neighbour who was asked to check on Emma by her mom.

Then Emma says she had an epiphany.

“I started to see what that life was like, and I realised this wasn’t for me and I was tired of trying to control my brain.” Emma left school and started working full time in hotel.

“School was destroying me, I was depressed from it so I started working, which I liked. It was good working every day, getting up and getting paid, but it was never a solution.

“I always wanted to do my Leaving Certificate.” Then Emma found the Cork Life Centre through a friend of a friend and everything changed.

“The contrast to myself a year ago is unbelievable. I have just flourished. I was going nowhere and now I am going somewhere.

I see things in a different light, I am more relaxed, at ease. I am progressing.” Emma said she now realises that the Leaving Certificate is not everything. “I know it is important, but I also know that I have a million other options available to me, such as volunteering in Africa or India.

“I am more grounded now, more myself. I’m not afraid, I’m going to do what I want to do and I am excited about what is ahead of me.” Emma said she loves the way things are done at the Cork Life Centre. “I love how teachers treat students, we sit, eat and learn together. It is community-based, we are a family.”

Speaking about mainstream schooling, Emma said it was a flawed system. “You are assessed on your ability to learn something and transcribe it and I think that is unfair.”

Studying at the Cork Life Centre also helped Emma’s relationship with her mother.

“Our relationship used to be very frayed. I was robbing money from her, she was always worried about me, ringing people trying to figure out where I was. She nearly had a mental breakdown over it.

“Now our relationship is at its peak. I love her to pieces and I tell her everything. Without her none of this would be possible, she is my role model.

“This school has made me flourish and be a better person than I ever thought I could be.”

Colm

MAINSTREAM SCHOOL WASN’T FOR COLM

Eighteen-year-old Colm O’Brien is about to sit his Leaving Certificate, but without the Cork Life Centre, the chances are he would not be in this position.

Mainstream schooling didn’t suit Colm. From the moment he started in first year, he felt like a fish out of water.

“The social environment was very different, but I thought I would adapt. However, by second year I was missing a lot of school.

The hardest part for me was simply getting there. I had no motivation. I found it terrifying the thought that this was my life for the next few years.

“Individually, the teachers were okay, but collectively it was overwhelming. The school was too big to be comfortable.”

Colm began asking his father, who is a teacher, to homeschool him, but his family came up with an even better idea.

“My sister knew someone volunteering at the Cork Life Centre and she suggested I give it a shot.” Colm went for an interview and started on the afternoon programme for the remainder of second year before switching to the morning programme for third year.

Colm said he preferred it to normal school.

“The school’s attitude doesn’t fixate on exams and the socialising in the morning helped me to be more social.” At the Cork Life Centre the teachers and students eat together and they have a number of breaks throughout the day to chat.

Colm said he enjoyed getting to know people and also enjoyed the classes. “The classes used to be one to one which is great, they are not anymore, because we don’t have the resources, but I love to talk and I had great conversations with my teachers.” Since joining the Cork Life Centre, Colm said he is a much more confident person.

“I am less insecure and more able to deal with stuff.” Colm said his parents always remark about the change that has come over him since he joined the Cork Life Centre.

“They are always saying about how different I am now, more confident and chattier.” As well as getting his education, Colm also took part in some extracurricular activities at the centre.

We go down the Meitheal Mara, the Cork community boatyard, once a week for the past two years and have been helping to build boats.

“It was a lot of fun and a very unique experience to be a part of.” Colm will be rowing one of the boats that he helped to make in the Ocean to City race taking place this weekend.

Along with a buddy, Colm will be rowing 14km in his currach.

“I’m looking forward to it, but I think I probably should have done more training for it.” Colm, who plans on being a musician, and is going on to study Music Management and Sound at Colaiste Stiofan Naofa, was just learning guitar when he started at the education centre and has since put together an album of original songs called Reflection in collaboration with the organisation.

The 18-year-old also took a trip to India with the Hope Foundation while studying at the centre.

“I found the experience overwhelming. I had never been in different country before so I had a lot to take in, but I enjoyed it.” Speaking about the ethos of the centre, Colm said some of the reasons it works so well is because everyone gets on and the teachers take an interest in the students.

“They are very sensitive to thoughts and feelings.” Colm said the Cork Life Centre has a healthy approach to exams. “They are taken seriously as part of the system, but we all know they are not the be all and end all. We have other options available to us.”

Listening to Loss: Children and Bereavement

bereavement quote

The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that in Ireland bereavement affects between 36,000 and 60,000 school children. Yet how many teachers or other professionals have the confidence to really talk to children about death and loss. Sometimes all that may be required is to listen or to give children a medium to express their feelings.

Here is a beautiful extract from ‘I’m Fine’ by A Wootten student of the Cork Life Centre outlining her experience around losing a parent.

Book Cover JPG

 

Dear Dad,…

I love you with all my heart.

I am 19 now and Victor is 17.

I wish you were here to see what a fine young man he has become.

I wish you were here to guide him.

I wish he could have you as a role-model and a confidant.

I am really worried about him. I am scared that I am going to lose him and mum like we lost you. I am scared that Victor might get depression, like me. That he might experience the pain that I do on a daily basis. I don’t want that for him. I love him and want so badly to protect him from it. He needs guidance and support. He needs a fathers love and input. He was 7 when he lost you!!!!! I have no doubt that he is hurting and that he misses you but he won’t talk to us!

Mum needs someone too. I can see she is hurting. I have always been able to see that. She loves you, she always has. She misses you. I am so so scared of losing her. I just want to protect mum and Victor. Seeing her in pain kills me. I wish there was something I could do. I wish I could make it all go away. I wish she could sleep. I want to give her the world. I would love to make her dream of riding a horse on a beach come true, but I have probably left it too late.

As for me…

I miss you.

I feel like I have forgotten you and I hate myself for that. I swore that I would never forget you. I promised I would take care of mum and Victor. I have failed. I am sorry.

What I would give to see you one last time, to talk to you again, to hug you and tell you that I love you…

What would you make of me now…?

Would you accept that I am only attracted to women?

Would you still love me if I wasn’t your “daughter”?

Would you be there for me when a girl breaks my heart?

Would you hate me for the marks on my body, my scars and tattoos?

Would you look at me with pride or disgust?

I’ll never know.

I’ll never get to introduce a girlfriend to you or to have you there if I get married.

I will never see you play with your grandchildren or hear you laugh.

There are so many things I will never know…

So many stories I’ll never hear…

 

As much as this all hurts me I hope that you are free of pain now.

I love you and I want to believe that you are proud of us, of your family.

 

 

Mr. Fix It

Cross legged with your twin,

Your earthy eyes shining with pride

And love.

Your understudy dutifully mimics

each action; his hero,

his father,

his teacher.

 

Sitting in a dusky dusty room,

Your hands covering his as the sander

Glides across the worn wooden floor

Lighting up his eyes with joy and fascination.

 

Outside, building a wall,

The determined grunt of the plastic hardhatted

3 year old version of you, Mr fix it Jnr,

Sitting in the sun, passing you brick after brick,

Tapping the brick to flatten it,

The only men in my life,

Hard at work in the yard.

 

The tears flowing from those same earthy eyes,

Mr fix it Jnr has lost his teacher.

7 years old and no longer a twin.

Left with only memories and pictures

of the man he aspires to be.

 

 

Not just hearing but listening to young people’s voices

Book Cover JPG

What an extraordinary week at the Cork Life centre for our annual Edmund Rice Conference. We have welcomed some wonderful guests into our community. As you enter our door you will see the following words ‘May all who enter as guests leave as friends’. We could not wish for better friends and advocates for children and young people than Deirdre Burke(Founder of the Guardian Project), Shane Griffin(Care Leavers’ Network) and Dr Tony Bates(Founder & Director of Innovation Jigsaw)

On Tuesday Deirdre communicated the need not to give young people just a voice but also an ear. Yesterday morning Shane generously shared his lived experience in the care system where more often than not he felt heard rather than listened to.

In the afternoon we were fortunate to have the support of Dr Tony Bates in giving a voice to one of our own young people by launching ‘I’m Fine’ by A.Wootten which is available to buy-contact corklifecentre@gmail.com for further details. This important piece of work chronicles a dark and difficult journey through the education system, through mental health, self-harm and thoughts of suicide. Who better to understand, validate and honour this journey than Dr Tony Bates. His words yesterday were so powerful we have asked his permission to share them.

Tony bates 2

I’m Fine by Amy Wootten

Book launch in Cork Life Centre | May 3rd, 2017 | Tony Bates

It seems like everybody’s talking about mental health. For the most part, I think this is a good thing. For too long this issue was not talked about. “Not a word” was a phrase that quickly followed mention of someone close to us who had any hint of a problem with their ‘nerves’.

Shame about our emotional struggles has certainly receded in this country, but it’s been replaced by fear. We’re may be talking more about mental health, but we’re still very spooked by it. Maybe because we know how bad things can get, maybe because we know how that a personal crisis can end it tears. Or maybe our fear is based on something more fundamental: we fear being judged, being rejected or thought less of, if we were to admit just how vulnerable we feel.

Amy tackles this fear head on, in her own unique way, in her memoir, ‘I’m Fine”. This is her story of how she gradually stopped denying how bad she felt and acknowledged the hurt in her mind and body.

Writers are concerned with truth and what moves us. For Amy her inner life was often a dark place. She wrote to make sense of her experience. She wrote to hold back the darkness:

My mental state continued to get worse until eventually I decided that writing about it really couldn’t make things any worse. I was desperate yet I didn’t have a clue what to write. It took a while but I began to get really comfortable writing and things just seemed to flow once I developed ways to reassure myself that no-one would have the ability to stumble across my journals.

I write because I can express myself, honestly, without fear of immediate judgement or retribution. I write because I find it much safer than talking. The paper on which you confess your secrets won’t judge you or mock you. The page on which you share your opinions will not become confrontational; it will not raise its voice or get defensive. It will always remain neutral. In a nutshell … writing allows me to express myself and explore my thoughts and opinions in the most honest and vulnerable way that is possible.

Writing calmed Amy. It turned her distress into words which she hand-wrote onto a blank page. Seeing her pain captured on that page wasn’t easy. It made her difficulties harder to deny and harder to run from. But it also brought some relief. Her thoughts were no longer trapped inside her head. And the pain in her body eased a little.

 

Another writer fond of putting things down on paper was Shakespeare. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with him but he’s worth checking out. When it came to distress, he believed very strongly that words opened the door to healing.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”

 

When we are able to express our experience in words – or through whatever medium comes most naturally to us – we give ourselves a way to step back from whatever is happening, to hold it in our minds, so that we can think about how to respond. In contrast, distress without words gives rise to symptoms and reactive behaviours that keep dig us deeper into the darkness we are trying to escape.

Amy turned her distress into words, which in turn became a bridge to a few key trusted  people with whom she shared what she’d written. Words gave her a way to express her truth and turn her conflicts into conversations.

For most of my life I have struggled to keep up the act, the facade of being ‘fine’. Even in the midst of a panic attack, I was ‘fine’, I had to be ‘fine’. A few years ago I met people who weren’t prepared to accept that I was ‘fine’. People who saw through my facade and who not only told me, but showed me they cared and that it mattered to them that I hurt. It took two years for them to earn my trust but once they had it I was able to be honest with them and show them that I wasn’t fine, that I was struggling.

 

People think mental health is about feeling good. It can be and there’s nothing wrong with feeling good. I tried it once; it was fun. But genuine mental health is about facing what is difficult in our life and finding ways to deal with it. When we turn towards, rather than run from, what is difficult, we feel more real. Gradually we see our problems as workable and we feel alive in ourselves. Our problems may seem huge, like a vast mountain looming up before us, but when we take even one step up that mountain, our stress level drops; that mountain becomes one step lower.

There is another way that writing can help. ‘Suffering can be born when it is made into a story’ (Karen Dixon). Recovery in mental health means being able to weave the raw elements of our lived experience into a story that makes sense of our lives and connects us with other people. Mental health is a story that can be told; mental illness is a story that’s never been told.

We’ve been telling each other stories for years in this country. At the edge of a wild Atlantic where our very survival was always at stake, we told each other stories. These stories were not merely to entertain or distract us. People like Peig told stories to validate suffering and give people hope, to give them a map. Her stories also reminded her community they were in this together and that they needed each other for survival. “Ar schath a cheili a mhaireas na daoine”, she wrote.

As Amy crafts her story – over two years of journaling –  we see her change in important ways. Her earliest entries are marked by self-loathing and pretence, but in her later writing she owns her truth and speaks without apology:

From: People want to think that everyone is okay. They are more comfortable believing that everything is okay; and you do not want to shatter that. So you play along and pretend that everything is fine, you lie. Those two words have become a part of you, a layer of your armour. You try your hardest to make sure that that is the only thing that others see.

 

To: I am a self-harmer, to be precise I am a ‘cutter’. I have only recently stopped cutting and begun trying to recover. I am a realist though; I know that if I get ‘clean’ the urge may always be there. Anytime something happens or I feel anything that isn’t ‘positive’, the first thing that will probably come to my mind to deal with it is to cut.. . Trust me when I say this, it might help for a little while but it takes over your life. When I started I thought I could control it, but I quickly realised that it controlled me. I also firmly believe that no one should ever have to feel the immense shame, fear and guilt that comes with self-harming.

 

Amy stopped pretending; she doesn’t minimise or romanticise her pain; in her story there is no magic bullet, no prince (or princess) who rides in on a shiny white horse to save her. I imagine that what’s happening here today must be her worst possible fear. She’s has dropped her armour and has chosen to be here today and share her truth with you. This is an enormous act of trust, for which we all thank you Amy.

Another striking feature of this story is the shift from mistrust to trust; from intense loneliness to relationship. Reading each page, I was struck by Amy’s persistent longing to communicate, to be heard, to be accepted. Running alongside this longing was an equally strong reluctance to trust others. This pull-push conflict was exhausting. But she persisted as did people around her who gave her a feeling of safety, and the time she needed to risk opening up.

FROM: My problems are my own burden. No-one else need know how messed-up I am. I won’t be anyone’s problem, anyone’s burden. I’ll sort my own issues out.

 

TO: As unrealistic as it may be, you want someone to care enough to try and see through your charade, your facade. You want someone to prove to you that you matter, that you are worth it… a part of you wants someone to be there when your defences crumble. You want someone to physically see how much you are hurting, how much you are struggling…Admitting that I wasn’t okay, that I wasn’t fine was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I felt so vulnerable and guilty, so exposed.

 

This centre forms the backdrop to Amy’s story. It plays a vital role in her journey. People like Don, Rachel, her mother and many others in this centre believed in her from the moment she stepped through these doors. The hung in with her when she hid from them and were there for her when she chose to share her truth. They are also heroes in this story.

The Cork Life centre is viewed by some people as an example of alternative education. But what is alternative education? I’m sure there are many definitions and descriptors but what distinguishes “Alternative” education are at least 4 things: A personalised curriculum; close working relationships between teachers and students; negotiated programmes of learning; collaboration and mutual support.

This is surely what is meant to happen in genuine education. it’s the alternative to this ethos – what we call ‘mainstream’ education – that is causing real problems for many of our young people.

 

 

closing thoughts

The writer and poet Anais Nin wrote a line that resonates with Amy’s story:

“There came a point in my own life where I had to be true to myself; there came a point when the pain of remaining tight in a bud was greater than the pain it took to blossom.” Anais Nin

We each come to mental health when the pain of pretending and hiding becomes too exhausting. Sometimes it takes a crisis in our lives to puncture that defensive umbrella we hold over our heads and mistake for ‘sanity’.

Mental health is the slow sometimes painful struggle to step into and own our own truth. To settle for some false persona, some socially desirable version of ourselves is unbearable, particularly to a young person. But to be real with others takes a lot of courage. You risk everything when you trust your broken self to others.

This book is Amy’s experience of taking that step. I’ve no doubt it will resonates with each of our journey’s. Because we have all been ‘FINE’. And we’ve all had to learn the true meaning of that word. Which isn’t really a word at all, but an Acronym: F***ed up; Insecure; Neurotic; and Emotional!

We all want to get to a place where we stop apologising to the world for who we are. Where we can stand in our own truth and echo Martin Luther King’s words: ‘I am somebody and I do count. I refuse to allow anybody to tell me that I’m nobody. I do not need to be ashamed of myself, ashamed of my heritage, ashamed of my body, ashamed of my hair. I have dignity. I have worth. I am beautiful’.

MLK was a star for an oppressed and alienated people. In Amy’s world, stars are critical.

 

In my mind, as long as there are stars, there will be hope and there will be guidance. I guess you just have to hold on to that shred of hope that if the stars can survive and shine through the darkness then you can survive your darkness, your struggles.

Amy, you have described the darkness and the importance of the stars in guiding you. What you should know is that we’re all stumbling around in the dark. Today you are a star for us.

This book will light a path for many others who are trying to see a way forward through some darkness. They will get it because you write in a way that is utterly believable. You don’t water down the pain of living you don’t make recovery sound like something easy. Those who are really hurting will feel validated by your story. They will see themselves in lines you’ve written and feel less alone. In your refusal to deny the darkness – but also your refusal to give in to it – readers will recognise a strong woman whose courage is infectious.

So follow your star Amy. Keep writing. This story isn’t over. This is just Season One. There are many others to be written. You make us all less afraid, you give us hope.

Thank you Amy.

Speaking our Truth

Ballaghdereen Controversy

mary_gallagher_ballaghderreen
Mary Gallagher’s Shop in Ballaghderreen

The recent announcement of the Irish Government’s decision to locate 80 Syrian refugees in a recently refurbished hotel in Ballaghdereen in County Roscommon has prompted much comment, both local and national. Much of the commentary has focused on the absence of consultation with the local community in advance. Some of it has been of the humorous variety: “Roscommon? Refugees don’t deserve this!”.

The Government’s intends to establish the Abbeyfield hotel as an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) which will receive Syrian refugees for a limited period of time. On completion of the EROC programme refugees will be dispersed and housed in different parts of the country, mostly in donated accommodation suitable for families.

The issue has activated a neuralgic nerve in the public consciousness. While most people are openly welcoming to refugees, there are also many who feel that “locals” should come first, including the local homeless and people on the housing list. As it happens, there are 286 vacant houses in and around Ballaghdereen, the so-called “ghost estates” built during the boom era when so much money flowed into speculative construction. The local area plan (LAP) compiled by Roscommon County Council notes:

Growth in Ballaghaderreen particularly, was fuelled by the presence of the tax incentives (at 21.5% between 2002 and 2006) which has left many unoccupied and unfinished houses in the town (Local Area Plan 2012–2018, page 9).

The local public representatives support the LAP in its ambition to rid the town once and for all of its ‘backwater’ image and to create, in the words of the plan “a culturally rich town that celebrates cultural diversity”. A refugee reception centre was probably not envisaged by the planners. In addition, locals interviewed by the media expressed disappointment that the newly-refurbished hotel which, they believed, would be a key element in implementing the plan for a more vibrant local economy would no longer be available.

John O'Donohue, Irish philosopher and author (1956-2008)
John O’Donohue, Irish philosopher and author (1956-2008)

The Ballaghderreen situation could probably be replicated across rural Ireland wherever a similar proposal might be made. Speaking at the Céifin Institute Conference in 1999, the late John O’Donohue, noted that one of the persistent and corrosive problems afflicting Irish society i the urban-rural divide. The city simply does not understand rural life. The language used by the city bureaucrats, he said, “is a language determined by the city and is usually not an understanding language” (John O’Donohue, *Walking on the Pastures of Wonder”, 2015, p. 139). In light of Brexit and the Trump phenomenon, we are only too well aware of the dangers to society posed by elite biases and prejudices.

On the other hand, the Ballaghderreen narrative is not entirely shaped by opposition and prejudice. In fact, quite the contrary. Many from the local community have expressed their desire to be welcoming to refugees and newcomers. One lady, interviewed on RTE’s Prime Time programme, the owner of the haberdashery and clothes shop in the town, has become something of a national celebrity for her straightforward assertion of traditional moral values, shaped by generations of living and working together in community:

We were brought up to think that if somebody was needy — I’m not talking about someone who just come to work and they’re alright, they’re okay, they’ve money coming in every week. But it somebody is needy and they were driven out of their homes and you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?

How could you say no? You’d be betraying every single thing that we ourselves came from.

That statement is at once an unashamed espousal of inherited deeply held community values as well as an equally generous welcoming of ‘the stranger in our midst’.

Pope Francis, in his statement for World Refugee and Migration Day, 2017, confronted us with a similar challenge, couched in biblical language, to that offered by Mary Gallagher. Citing the Hebrew Bible he said:

“Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). This phenomenon constitutes a sign of the times, a sign which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.

It is difficult for us, in these turbulent and disruptive times, to grasp the profound implications of what is happening. Sometimes, the events in history that have, in the long run, the most positive longer term effects are those which are born in chaos and disruption. A bit like the story of the universe itself.

In the Pope’s remarks it is not too difficult to hear the voice of Teilhard de Chardin. Something is being born in the present chaos. Something that brings us that nano-step nearer to universal communion. As Catholics, every time we gather for Eucharist we are reminded of this ultimate goal of human history, what the liturgy often refers to in the language of ‘gathering together’. This is not a reference to an initial pre-historic unity but a yet-to-be-realised future realisation of God’s dream for the Universe, “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians, 1:10).

So, despite the practical political difficulties arising from the present situation, we can, on reflection, being to discover and appreciate a wider horizon for hope and action.

Edmund Rice School Pupils and Homelessness

Last year a gathering of young people took place in Mount Sion, Waterford to reflect on the homelessness issue. It was decided that the students themselves would engage in a campaign to raise awareness about this issue. This campaign would take place first of all in the schools concerned: Ardscoil na Mara, Tramore, CBS Midleton, The Abbey Community School, Wateford and CBS, Carlow. It was hoped that eventually a petition would be handed in to the Minister with responsibility for housing.

This has now taken place. Just after Christmas when the schools re-opened following the holidays, a petition with 10,000 signatures was handed in to Housing Minister, Simon Coveney, T.D.

Explicit reference was made to the Edmund Rice education dimension of the reflection that had taken place in the schools and with the pupils involved.

Read all about it here

On a related note, the Edmund Rice Camps met last Saturday in the Province Centre in Dublin to coordinate the annual Coats for the Homeless campaign. With the assistance of the Edmund Rice Camp Leaders coats and other appropriate clothing are collected for distribution among the Dublin Homeless. The Peter McVerry Trust is also involved.

Well done to all who took part in both initiatives!