Privilege to help ‘amazing’ young people on their journey; Cork Life Centre celebrates 20 years of education 

Privilege to help ‘amazing’ young people on their journey; Cork Life Centre celebrates 20 years of education 

Director Don O'Leary pictured at Cork Life Centre, Sundays Well. 

CORK Life Centre, which has provided an alternative education path for thousands of young people from the city, is celebrating 20 years.

The centre is for students who did not fit into the mainstream school system.

The Cork Life Centre’s first director was Brother Gary O’Shea.

The current director is Don O’Leary, and he says the 20th anniversary is “huge”.

“It’s been a steady, if sometimes rocky, journey,” he tells The Echo.

Set up in Cork in 2000 — there was already a centre in Dublin — the Life Centre is based on a Servol (Service Volunteered for All) model of education.

Servol was established in Trinidad in the 1970s, by Fr Gerry Pantin, as an alternative model of education.

In 1993, a monk, Brother Paul Hendrick, met Fr Pantin in Jamaica and took his concept of education back to Ireland, approaching the Christian Brothers for support. Sister Mary Flood also helped.

In 1996, the Pearse Square Life Centre was opened in Dublin. In 2000, the Sunday’s Well Centre was opened in Cork, and, in 2006, Cherry Orchard, in Dublin, opened.

The Servol model has three key philosophies.

The first is the philosophy of ignorance, which means educators should not presume to know what is best for any individual.

Attentive listening is the second and this involves building a good relationship between the student and educator.

“Sometimes, adults have a problem with listening to young people,” says Mr O’Leary. “Young people are brilliant at articulating their needs; we just need to listen to them

Respectful intervention is the last philosophy.

“You can’t force anybody to change, but if a young person does want to change their life, we can support them with this.”

The Sunday’s Well centre has gone from strength to strength.

“When I joined, in 2006, we had six students,” Mr O’Leary says. “We had around four or five staff, as well as some volunteers. The centre is open to everyone, boys and girls.

“This year, we have 55 students and it is our first year of offering the Leaving Cert, as a pilot scheme. We have 72 staff on our timetable; about 90% of these are volunteers,” Mr O’Leary says.

“This is part of our ethos. These volunteers are here because they want to be here with our students. Our staff sit down and eat a hot meal with our students every day.”

The volunteers come from all different backgrounds, much like the students.

“Some are teachers, others have done sociology, youth and community work… this variety of different approaches is important,” Mr O’Leary says.

Darragh Cotter, from Mayfield, after receiving his Leaving Cert results last autumn. He is one of many young people from Cork to benefit from the help of the Life Centre.
Darragh Cotter, from Mayfield, after receiving his Leaving Cert results last autumn. He is one of many young people from Cork to benefit from the help of the Life Centre.

In terms of subject choices, the Life Centre has increased its offering.

Students can take maths, English, Irish, art, home economics, woodwork, Japanese, German, French, history, and geography.

Mr O’Leary says there is a stigma attached to early school-leavers.

“The stereotypes can be quite derogatory: that they don’t work, they don’t care, they drink alcohol, and smoke hash,” he says. “But this is not true.”

Not all of the students are from socially disadvantaged areas, and a lot of them are academically good.

The Life Centre has had quite a diverse bunch of students: some are on the autism spectrum, others have Asperger’s, social anxiety, mental health difficulties, a few are in care, and some are engaging with the juvenile justice system.

“For whatever reason, the mainstream education system could not fit their needs,” Mr O’Leary says.

Sometimes, the students have dealt with trauma in their early lives.

“This impacts people differently,” he says. “It might be a bereavement, bullying, or something else; it can be debilitating.

“They deserve to be there and to live their life. The students realise this is more important than getting eight A’s.”

However, Mr O’Leary doesn’t want to be overly critical of mainstream education.

“You can’t expect teachers to deal with complex issues at schools, especially when the waiting lists for CAMHS, and other services, are so long,” he says.

“People slip through the cracks and we pay the price further down the line.”

Mr O’Leary says the key to encouraging young people with their education is to find their passions and interests and to link them to a subject they may like to study.

“A lot of our students are interested in Japanese cartoons [anime], so we would encourage them to study Japanese.” He says the Life Centre is less like a school and more like a community.

“We have drama classes and public speaking, and a lot of former students’ parents come back and volunteer with things like this. They stay in touch,” Mr O’Leary says.

The centre also offers counselling, five days a week, for its students and has a dedicated drug counsellor. This adds to the holistic approach of the Life Centre.

“The results of their exams are not hugely important,” Mr O’Leary says. “We want to engage with them on a more personal level.

“Education is a journey; it’s about how the student grows and how they take their place in the world.”

Highlights for Mr O’Leary over the years include seeing students complete their examinations, as well as students coming back for a visit while they are in college.

“We have had students create poetry books, students who spoke at the United Nations and in the European Parliament in Brussels; others have helped with homeless support groups, some have gone to Calcutta to volunteer with the Hope Foundation,” Mr O’Leary says.

The hardest part of the job is turning people away: “We had 164 phone calls last year. We can’t accommodate everyone who comes to us,” Mr O’Leary says.

The Cork Life Centre gets some funding from the Department of Education, as well as philanthropic sources.

“Tomar Trust and the Cork Foundation have been very good to us,” Mr O’Leary says. “Tomar Trust has given us €40,000 per year for ten years and the Cork Foundation has provided funding for our counselling for four years now.”

This funding means that the centre can provide stability for its students.

“It allows us to keep our services running. The young people know that people care about them and we have a core staff for continuity.”

The main thing Mr O’Leary is celebrating after 20 years are the young people.

“There are amazing young people, who have gone on to university, gotten scholarships; others have gone into employment, which is just as important.

“It is the greatest privilege, being allowed to journey with them and to see them grow. We are in awe of the young people’s achievements,” Mr O’Leary says.

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