ON THE outskirts of Cork City, the Bruac Centre, the educational arm of the Good Shepherd Cork, provides education and development opportunities to girls and young women who are unable to access mainstream education.
Approximately 15 learners attend Bruac (near Blackpool) as a local training initiative, with up to 20 more attending on a more informal basis, said education and development manager Charlotte O’Donovan.
“We have some 15-year-olds who don’t normally fit that model, who are too young but who education services have asked us to engage with because they won’t engage with any other establishment.”
“Or we’d have girls on disability who aren’t in a position to commit to a full-time programme, they’re just not stable enough for that so we will do a very casual programme, defined in the hours we set, but a short-term programme that suits where they are coming from.”
“We could have learners come to us, from a residential mental health hospital so they are very fragile and you really have to move at a slow pace. We’d always try as well and encourage women from Edel House to engage with us, drop in, take part in our horticultural programme, take part in a computer class.”
Focusing on small classes and inclusive learning in a warm environment, women attending Bruac can choose classes in subjects like art, design and craft, literacy, career planning, child care, nail art and sexual health and wellbeing.
Bruac has recently decided to formally map the approach to learning that the centre adapted naturally years ago, that is individually valuing each learner who attends its centre.
“Really it’s an organic model that evolved over 30 years and I suppose I’d have to say a lot of it came out of the original ethos of the Good Shepherd,” Charlotte says. “I wouldn’t be an overly religious person or anything like that but the original ethos of the Good Shepherd was that each individual person is more valuable than the whole and you have to move and work to try and make a difference with one individual.” This approach can seem out of step with the modern world, she said.
“Through having to sustain industry and commerce and qualifications, you can’t work to one individual, you have to work to a kind of an average or you have to work to a large audience.”
“With our approach, it’s the reverse. One individual is the most important aspect of it and I suppose that’s why Bruac is so small because you couldn’t apply that approach to a centre with 50 girls, you’d never get anywhere! Every decision we make we try and say, is this in the best interest of that girl. We really try and adopt an approach that means every decision that’s made is unique and specially progresses the individual concerned,” she explains.
“And you know it’s that ethos, believing in the unique dignity of an individual, it’s believing that everybody is equal and it’s believing that regardless of wherever they are coming from, whether it’s probation services, prison, substance misuse or prostitution, or whatever it is, they come in the door and we’re all equals.”
“And that past or influences that have happened them are behind them. A lot of the learners who come to us would have had a lot of damage done in their lives or a lot of negative experiences from mainstream education, so first and foremost we are building their relationship in a kind of homely environment.”
A lot of this trust is built up through preparing and eating a daily meal together, she explains.
“A lot of what we do is that we really look at building the relationship and building the trust so that the barriers come down for the learners. We have a lunch together every day around 11:30; staff and the girls, prepared together and we eat together, with very normal everyday conversation and encouraged, almost like a family unit.”
“Then I suppose trust is built up and barriers are broken down. They feel the staff are normal humans too, and we all try and create a relationship. Now, there’s still structure in class times and there are rules and regulations but around that there’s a sense of warmth and a sense of equality.”
“We focus on small successes, small steps and every step they take in the right direction is positive. And if they can begin to see their own successes, we believe long-term that they become positive agents of their own change.”
“A lot of them would believe that they have no control over how they can improve their lives.
They kind of feel like — ‘this is the way we are, what can I do about it?’ but we’re trying to turn that around and say ‘Look you’ve had this little success, that little success, let’s build that and you can become the agent of your own change.”
Bruac has now begun to formally work with a psychologist to analyse their approach which has evolved naturally over 30 years.
“Trying to capture and put into formal terminology and theory what we’re doing,” Charlotte said.
“And we know it works because we do get a very marginalised cohort of girls and we do get them formal qualifications or we do progress them onto the next level. We’re trying to really look at that, how we really do that and how can we share that experience?”
“What she sees is that a lot of these learners, because they’ve had a lot of trauma in their lives when they come into an environment, it’s really just fight or flight mode and that’s really how they’ve had to live a lot of their lives because it’s survival. And that type of mode, that type of being isn’t conducive to learning.”
“I suppose, in other educational settings, they haven’t had the opportunity or the time afforded to them to prevent that way of existing. What we try to do is give them a sense of security in the centre. A phrase the psychologist coined for us is ‘Rest and Digest’ to pause, to be able to leave this fight or flight mode, break down the barriers, begin to trust us and it’s from that place of calm and trust that learning can evolve.”
Building trust with the girls doesn’t happen overnight, she explains.
“It’s a very long process, very long but a simple type of process really. I suppose every staff member who works in Bruac would have a fundamental belief in the unique value and dignity of each person and that you really look at them and where they are coming from and have no judgement when they come in.”
So we’re trying to create an open atmosphere for them- you’re coming in here, we’re all equals, we’re going to try and move a step forward, together we’ll do it, what’s happened before doesn’t matter.
“Every step in the right direction will be rewarded and acknowledged and we’ll keep going until we get somewhere.”
“We’re trying to get them to learn to accept the kindness and together we’ll move forward.
“And that can take a very long time like in practical terms you might have someone come in and she won’t even look at you or speak to you and if she does, it’s to fire abuse at you.”
“Not that anybody will say that it’s right to accept someone talking negatively, but you’re not just looking at that, you’re looking at the whole reason around it, how we can change it because it will get to a point where they will look at you and they will converse with you civilly and you build a relationship and they can see that all you are trying to do is facilitate them to engage in the learning process.”
Echo reporter Jess Casey visited Bruac at the Good Shepherd, Cork, to find out how empathy and kindness can play a key role in educating women marginalised from the mainstream education system