As the newest addition to the Good Shepherd Cork team, Allison Aldred has been able to appreciate the organisation with fresh eyes.
The dedication of the people working here, she said, is really inspiring.
“I started with Good Shepherd Cork earlier this year and what I have seen since I’ve been here is just how strong and effective an approach we have across all our services. I think we’re doing something that’s really powerful and innovative.”
Allison started her working life in the UK in management consultancy working with corporate clients. From that she was involved in setting up a management consultancy firm specifically for not-for-profit clients and realised this was a sector she wanted to know more about.
She eventually immersed herself entirely in the not-for-profit sector, working overseas for a UK charity, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).
“My first overseas job was running VSO's programme in the Maldives... which was a very interesting place to land. I had a couple of years there and found the work, and society, fascinating. It's a tiny island in the Indian Ocean about an hour’s flight from Sri Lanka,” she explained.
“A lot of the Maldivian economy is around tourism now. But until tourism took off, there wasn't a lot of money to develop infrastructure. When I lived there, there was no third level education available. You could find primary schools and a few secondary schools but if you wanted any sort of professional education you had to leave the country and that was hugely expensive.”
VSO’s professional volunteer programme was valuable in that context as trained, skilled volunteers from UK and other countries could work alongside Maldivian colleagues and provide on the job training, she explained.
“Then I moved with VSO to run their programme in Sri Lanka. Which was great. More conventional in a way – bigger country, lots more going on. After that I moved to Oxfam GB and ran the Oxfam programme in Sri Lanka for three years,” recalled Allison.
“Then I took on the position of Regional Director for Oxfam GB, managing their South Asia region. I moved to Bangladesh where Oxfam had their South Asia regional office, then we relocated the office to Delhi and so my family and I moved there.”
As part of the role, Allison began working on issues around gender equality and women's rights. She spent a number of years in South Asia before deciding she would eventually like to settle down somewhere.
“At that point we had been moving around for nearly 17 years and decided to settle down. Our children had been through so many different school systems… we wanted to settle and get the children through their secondary education. We came to Ireland because my husband's family is from Kerry and we used to spend all our summers there,” she said.
“We looked at possible jobs and schools and thought maybe we would settle in Cork instead of Kerry. We found Bandon Grammar School - we were looking for a school with something of an international dimension because that's what the children were used to. Then we found Kinsale and thought it would be a lovely place to live. We moved there and the children went to Bandon Grammar, which has been a really positive environment for them. Two have graduated and our youngest daughter is still there.”
In terms of work, Allison lost no time at all and began working with Trocaire.
“I spent five years commuting to Maynooth. I would usually go up on a Tuesday morning and come back on a Thursday night. I was Head of Strategy and Impact, so I was leading work on country and strategic planning and developing systems for monitoring and evaluation and impact assessment which has become more and more important – donors really want to know what change they are bringing about with their funding. And being able to find ways to measure and explain change has become an essential requirement in the not-for-profit sector,” she said.
“So I did that for a number of years and then decided I would like to be a CEO! I think one of the best things I had with the Oxfam role in South Asia was that I was ultimately managing everything – the finance and the campaigning and the fundraising as well as the development and humanitarian programmes. And I really enjoyed the breadth of that job. Trocaire was interesting, it’s a good organisation, but the job was very detailed – it was deep instead of wide.”
So Allison first became CEO of a charity called Suas Educational Development which works with educational disadvantage in Ireland and India and sub-Saharan Africa.
She held that position until earlier this year when she saw a position available at Good Shepherd Cork – a Cork city-based organisation which helps women and children experiencing homelessness - and realised it was the perfect job for her.
“I thought wow – here's a job that's focused on vulnerable women and children. There's a whole piece around educational disadvantage which I had been working in, a focus on women's empowerment and gender equality, which I had also been working in, and on top of that it was nearly on my doorstep so I was delighted to be offered the CEO role and find myself here,” she said.
“It's really an impressive organisation. It is inspiring to be in an organisation which has such a visible ethos which is very much centred around fully valuing the women and children accessing the services. The teams in each of the different services, they're brilliant. There are really able people doing meaningful, quality work, with a real commitment to the women and children using the services.”
Throughout all her roles, Allison explained she has learned that positive, social change starts when individuals start to value themselves.
“For example in the work I have been involved in around violence against women, women can often feel that they have no power in a relationship and kind of accept violence as something that goes on in the society around them. But when they start to value themselves and start to recognise that they have some power to change their own situation, that's when change starts,” she said.
“And a lot of the most successful work I've seen is individual women recognising 'I can bring about change in my life. I'm not going to accept this any longer. I'm going to seek support, I'm going to tell friends, neighbours, I'm going to look for local services.' And it's that kind of individual change that starts the process of social change. It's a domino effect. Of course to bring about change at scale in a community or society, you need to provide resources and work with other agencies and to be able to influence policy. But it starts from individuals recognising that change is possible.”
She said coming into Good Shepherd Cork there was a lot of talk about that kind of change – that valuing the women and children in the service and supporting them so they can value themselves is very much the ethos of the organisation as a whole.
“Take the team here at Bruac, running our education and development service. The staff really help the girls to set manageable targets for themselves and then the girls feel good about achieving that target. They can be very modest targets, but the girls get into a process of achieving and valuing themselves for what they have achieved and then they get a bit more confident about a more ambitious target…. that’s what empowerment is all about, recognising you have the power to change your circumstances,” said Allison.
“When I look across our services, I'm so impressed by the calibre of people here and the quality of the work that we're doing and the impact of that work.”
While Allison said the job is an energising one, and that it is fantastic to be able to support people in need, it can be very emotional for staff members at times, especially considering the strain the current housing crisis is putting on clients who are, quite often, at their wits end when they present at the various services.
“Staff have told me that at one point people would move into Edel House and they'd move out in around three weeks or so. It was very much a temporary emergency situation. But there are some women with us for months and months now. Because sometimes there is nowhere to move to,” she said.
“I was just looking at some of the figures. In terms of families, a couple of years ago we had 100% occupancy. We thought we were full. But over 2016, occupancy was over 120% in family rooms. There's just more and more families that need emergency accommodation. We don't want to turn people away. But there are so few options for people. So the crisis is here, it's not going away.”
However, Allison did say they are noticing more money coming available as a result of Housing Minister Simon Coveney's Rebuilding Ireland programme.
“In the past few years, government funding was declining whilst demands on our services have been increasing – so our services are very over-stretched. But recently we were contacted by the HSE to say there's a budget of €1.5m, through Rebuilding Ireland, to improve the health and well-being of people in homelessness services. We've applied for additional support from that. I don't know if it will be successful, there will be huge competition across the country for these resources. But colleagues were saying they can’t remember having any opportunity to apply for additional funding like this,” she said.
“We hope to see more money coming on stream and we will continue to look for these opportunities and hopefully, over time, we will receive additional government funds. I think it's going in the right way, I think it just needs time. But we will always continue to need the support of the people of Cork to help us find enough resources to provide the level and quality of services that vulnerable women and children need if they are to see real and lasting change in their lives.”