STAFF and volunteers at Cork Life Centre are mourning the loss of its founder who is being described as both a visionary and a gentleman.
Brother Gary O'Shea founded Cork Life Centre, which began serving as an alternative educational route for thousands of young people from the city, 20 years ago. Located in Sunday's Well, the facility offers students an alternative to mainstream education.
The initiative is based on the Servol (Service Volunteered for All) model of education which was originally established in Trinidad.
Brother Gary O'Shea, who grew up in Nash's Boreen, adopted the idea after Brother Paul Hendrick introduced the concept to Ireland with the country's first life centre in Dublin back in 1993. Brother Gary followed suit and devoted much of his life to helping struggling young people receive formal school certification.
Don O'Leary said that while everyone involved with Cork Life Centre is heartbroken to lose Brother Gary, his legacy will live on.
He remembered him as an extremely patient and caring man.
"While working as the director of Cork Life Centre he also taught maths," Mr O'Leary said. "Despite maths being a real problem area for many students he was so patient with everyone. In all the years he was involved with the centre I never once heard him raise his voice. He gave so much time to the children and nothing ever ruffled him. He loved kids and was very empathetic towards their needs. Brother Gary was even like that with the younger volunteers and served as a great mentor to them. He looked at them as the next generation. He was a one-off and a very special man."
Don recalled being impressed by the Cork man's compassion and sensitivity.
"He had great compassion, love and a wonderful sense of humour. Even in the last year when we went to visit him in Baldoyle Dublin-where he spent his last days- he asked how the centre was doing and said it was great that we were keeping the show on the road. Even when he wasn't in the centre I still regarded him as my boss. He epitomised everything that was good in education."
Mr O'Leary described Brother Gary's legacy.
"This isn't a shrine, it's a living breathing centre. Brother Gary has left us with an amazing legacy. We never imagined how much the centre would grow."
Staff and volunteers still remember the great pride that Brother Gary derived from running the centre.
"He loved gardening and the lawns were his pride and joy. He was always cleaning or taking care of whatever needed to be done."
Brother Gary was also fun-loving and got very involved in school trips.
"No matter what it was he was always involved and even took part in the kayaking. He was very active and loved cycling in the Summer."
Cork Life Centre's Deputy Director Rachel Lucey also paid tribute to her mentor.
"He taught us a lot about every job," she said. "In a place like this, you are the gardener, the cleaner, everything. There was no job that was ever above Brother Gary."
A book was put together in 2015 while Gary was still working with centre entitled "What the Cork Life Centre Means to me."
In it he described how the school started from humble beginnings.
"We started with four students, and three staff. When we started the building wasn't ready. It was supposed to be ready. We had to get a new roof on it, we had to get the outside plastered.....there was a lot of refurbishing outside and inside. We had to have a portable building outside, which was a tiny little room and the staff room was the car.
Brother Gary also addressed his students and said:
"The students have done brilliantly. My best experience has been meeting ye and seeing the thing grow. The centre has given people the opportunity to develop their talents and prepare for work. I'd like to see a few more LIfe Centres around the city and country. There is a need for them. There's a sign on the wall-'The Seed Will Grow'-and that's been the story of the Centre. Bit by bit, it grew and grew and grew and hopefully there's no stopping it.''