HOMELESSNESS and poor living conditions are not modern problems; they were an issue in Cork city 50 years ago, when SHARE (Students Harness Aid for the Relief of the Elderly) was founded by a group of boys at Presentation Brothers College, Cork.
Frank McCarthy, 66, originally of Glasheen and now living in Ovens, was among the pupils who were there at the birth of the organisation, encouraged by principal Brother Jerome.
He was among 11 students talking among themselves when one of the lads said he had come across an elderly person living in squalor.
“Brother Jerome was bringing new ideas to the school at the time,” recalls Frank, “encouraging us to think about what was going on (in Cork) and we came up with the fund-raising idea for the elderly.
“Now, when we started, there was no way we ever envisaged it was going to mushroom into what SHARE is today. We were just collecting money to help the needy.
“It was such a tremendous success. We did a fast. Later, we opened the boxes and counted the money. I can’t remember how much we made, but it was huge, huge to a schoolboy.”
Cork people were and are very generous, says Frank.
“It was unbelievable the amount of money we collected that year. Ladies were putting £5 notes into the collection boxes. That was in old money, a lot at the time.”
In 1970, the fledgling charity “wasn’t the organisation it is now. It was very low key. It was just 11 or 12 of us guys trying to do something.”
Clearly, they struck a chord. This Christmas hundreds of students from 22 schools across Cork donned the familiar yellow jackets and the SHARE crib was lit up in Patrick Street, marking the beginning of the annual collection that includes a 24-hour fast by some of the students.
SHARE has generated 140 housing units around the city, where the elderly live comfortably and enjoy frequent visits from the students of the charity.
Bishopstown native Ann Keohane, fifth year student at Mount Mercy College, says collecting for SHARE is part of what she grew up with at home. Her older brothers, Martin, Fionn and Kevin, all volunteered for it in their day. They go to see the elderly residents housed by SHARE every now and then.
Ann says: “Everyone in our family has a yellow sticker on our clothing in December.”
Every Wednesday in fifth year, Ann, who is on the executive board of SHARE, and another student, Jenna O’Mahony, visit an elderly woman in a SHARE house.
“She is 92 but only looks 70,” says Ann. “Residents in the homes may not have family or someone to fall back on. So SHARE, as well as giving them a home, gives them companionship. We’re seen as a breath of fresh air. I feel quite privileged to visit the woman.”
Has she learned anything from the elderly lady?
“I learned how to stay wrinkle-free. Just use soap and water! She loves to read and loves watching TV so we have great chats about movies.”
Ann and her family discuss SHARE all the time. “My brothers talk about what it has done for them. It changes you as a person. It makes you more open to everything. I wouldn’t really have known how to talk to the elderly as friends. You talk to older people differently but when you’re in SHARE, you just talk to the elderly as if they’re a friend.”
James McCarthy, of Grenagh, fifth year student at ‘Pres’, is chairman of the student SHARE executive. “It’s a tradition that students get involved in SHARE in fifth year and can be on the executive that year,” he says. “Last year, I would have done a lot of collecting, about 14 hours.”
SHARE is not just about collecting funds to build homes. It also runs the Dementia Outreach Project. “It’s a pilot scheme that was introduced in 2017,” James explains.
“Two students and an adult go to the houses of residents with dementia every week. There are 12 adult volunteers involved, including Brother Andrew from ‘Pres’. It complies with child protection. Students can’t be left alone with an adult that has dementia. We go to the house and stay for two hours, providing social connection for the dementia.
“The idea is that the carer has a few precious hours to go out. It’s respite for them. We’ve had a very positive response from the community with regards to the dementia project.
“My grandfather had dementia. He died before I was born. Now, I have some understanding (of the condition.)”
Over the festive season, one of James’s duties was head motivator, which involves motivating the collectors. “There’s a motivating team, running around to every collector, checking in with them to make sure everything is going well.”
It’s hard work, being out in the cold and rain, approaching the public and relying on their generosity. But James says: “It’s well worth it. Not only do you get an acute sense of fulfilment, it’s also a lot of fun. You’re out with your friends all day, in the lead up to Christmas, having a good time and doing something for a good cause.”
James has learned a lot from volunteering for SHARE. “I’ve even learned skills from being chairman. I know now how to manage meetings and it gives you people skills.
“Also, SHARE has shown me that stopping to chat with someone for five minutes can remind them that they’re not alone in the world.”
And that is the essence of SHARE, sharing and caring for vulnerable citizens.