SOCIAL studies student, Leah Corkery, is just like any other happy-go-lucky teenager and recently celebrated her 19th birthday.
“I was really happy celebrating my birthday with my family and friends,” says Leah, from Dromahane, Mallow, a student in Mallow College.
“My parents own a pub in Mallow and we all had a great time.”
She is also determined to bring a smile to the faces of children in Cape Town South Africa too.
“Before my visit to Mfuleni with the Mellon Educate Building Blitz last year, to help build schools in the town, I collected 200 teddy bears from my family and friends to take to the children there.”
She wanted to spread the love, bringing the toys stuffed with happiness to impoverished children.
“With 2,000 students in the school, I didn’t have enough teddies for everyone. I felt bad that it wasn’t enough. Some of the children in Mfuleni, even 17 or 18 year olds, have never owned a teddy before.”
The kind-hearted teenager decided ahead of her next trip to South Africa on November 16 that she wanted to make sure every child in the school gets a teddy bear, so she set herself the ambitious target of collecting 2,000 teddies.
A month before her trip, Leah has collected 10,000 teddies and dolls and is still counting!
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the response and the amount of donations I’ve received,” she says, beaming with happiness.
“It has just been amazing,” adds Leah, who has been involved volunteering in the Mellon Building Blitz Project, which changes the lives of those in dire need of help, since she was in Transition Year.
“Ever since I put a post on Facebook appealing for teddy bears for the children in South Africa, it just went a bit mad! Loads of different people and groups have gotten involved, and some are giving up their favourite teddies!”
“An awful lot of children will be very happy because of everyone’s generosity.”
The children in Mfuleni make their feelings known.
“Over there, crying means something significant,” says Leah.
“People cry when they are very happy and when they are very sad.”
The pupils do something else too that is very touching.
“They rub my red hair when the teachers aren’t looking!”
The parents and teachers must have happy tears in their eyes when they see Leah and the team arriving to muck in, building schools and forging lifelong friendships?
“Yes. They do. It is lovely to see the happiness and tears of joy.”
Now the children, who typically play with tyres, ropes and trolleys, will have something of their very own to treasure.
“They love the teddies,” says Leah.
She is thinking of donating her own treasured teddy bear, Bobby. “I think I will do that,” she says.
How did Leah get involved in the inspirational project when she was just a young teenager?
“My dad, Nicholas, and my uncle John, who owns Alu Fit that supply and fit shoots and gutters on houses, travelled to South Africa with the Niall Mellon Building Blitz Project for many years. They both got involved in charity work.”
A sad event prompted the brothers to do good works helping those in need.
“Their youngest brother, Padraig, suffered mental health problems,” says Leah.
“After he died, my dad and uncles, including uncle Kieran in the UK, fund-raised for Suicide Awareness, for Pieta House, and for Marymount. Because my family own the pub, and all the locals want to help out, the charity events were, and still are, very successful, raising lots of money for good causes. We raised phenomenal money.
“Looking at other ways to distribute the amount of money raised, John decided to travel to Africa with the Mellon Project, then dad went out afterwards. Soon, other relatives got involved as well, including my sister, Holly.”
Leah, who is Youth Liaison for the group, will be making her third trip to South Africa next month.
“I first went there when I was in 5th year,” she says.
“I was supposed to go to South Africa in 2016, but I got sick and I had to be hospitalised.”
She rallied the following year. And she rallied the troops.
“My school, St Mary’s in Mallow, were fantastic organising events fundraising for me. Pals got together and held bake days and we hosted The Cube — a game show which was hugely popular and great fun,” says Leah.
“Mallow College are hugely supportive in fund-raising as well. In order to travel to South Africa, every new volunteer has to raise €4,500 , a veteran volunteer, €4,000.
“Customers in the pub kindly donated €2 a week for my travels, so funds soon amounted up.”
What were her first impressions landing in Mfulini?
“It can be a bit dangerous, so we get an armed guard to accompany us to the building site on the bus every morning at 7am after breakfast. A small amount of native people might imagine we are rich peopl,e getting paid for doing the work.”
Leah looks forward to a good day’s work.
“I’m so excited, I get up in good time; that doesn’t happen at home!” she says, laughing.
A full day can be 18 or 19 hours.
“There’s a chain of people laying blocks, laying slates,” says Leah. “In one day a roof can be constructed.”
The volunteers don’t hang about.
“Two schools are built in a week. It’s a mad amount,” says Leah.
Everyone gets stuck in.
“There are 19 youths travelling to South Africa this year who have no trades. They help the trades people, labouring and helping with construction. Everybody has a part to play.”
The camaraderie and feelgood factor in the townships motivates the volunteers to be part of the chain gang.
“You can get upset sometimes and cry too,” says Leah.
“Often the reason the students go to school is to get clothes and food. Otherwise they wouldn’t get either.
“When the school term is coming to a close, the students are weaned off the food, because they don’t get as much good food at home all the time.
“You can see some of the children’s bellies are bloated because of malnutrition.”
Leah wants help the children while she’s in South Africa.
“I just want to be there for them. Some of my best friends I have are the friends I made in Mfuleni. I think of them as family.
“Faith and I have been writing letters since we were 16. Now, she has a sponsor who is contributing to her education.”
The circle of friendship from Mallow to Mfuleni matters.
“One of the boys working in the hotel wanted to propose to his girlfriend and marry her. But he couldn’t afford a ring. A week later, one of the volunteers sent him a ring and now the couple are getting married.”
The love continues to spread across the miles.
“You know, to see the happiness on the children’s faces is just wonderful,” says Leah.
This 19-year-old is making a real difference to people’s lives.
Having your very own teddy bear to cuddle means a lot, doesn’t it?
“It is really special for the children. Their faces just light up,” says Leah.
Teddies and dolls can be dropped off to Corkerys Bar in Dromahane, Mulcahys Pharmacy, Main Street, Mallow, Nathleens Montessori Kanturk, Mulcahys Pharmacy, Millstreet, MPHC Pharmacy, Ikon Hairdressers Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork, Susan Carey of Swear by Fashion Mallow, Market Square and Finnella Naughton, whose business is in Laytown Business Park, Kildare.
Every year, Mellon Educate organise their own renowned Building Blitz trip to Africa for volunteers from all over the world to travel, lend a helping hand building better infra-structure in poor African countries.
To date, the charity has built 16 schools, renovated many more, providing more than 10,000 young children with a better chance at life.