Children can’t fail the system, it fails them, says Cork Life Centre director

John Bohane speaks to Cork Life Centre director, Don O’Leary, about their work and how they are set to benefit from significant funding.
Children can’t fail the system, it fails them, says Cork Life Centre director

Don O'Leary at the Cork Life Centre, Winters Hill, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

CORK Life Centre recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and received the perfect anniversary present with the news that they will be allocated significant additional funding and teaching support.

The Department of Education sanctioned an additional €100,000, while 12 new posts will be created there this September.

The centre, which is located in Sunday’s Well, offers an alternative learning environment to young people aged between 12 and 18 who find themselves outside the mainstream education system.

The Cork Life Centre initiative is based on the Servol (Service Volunteered for All) model of education which was originally established in Trinidad.

Brother Gary O’Shea, who sadly passed away last year, was the founder of the Cork Life Centre. He devoted much of his life to helping struggling young people receive formal school certification.

The current director is Don O’Leary, who is proud to carry on the great work.

Don, who commenced working in Cork Life Centre in 2006, said he has seen a lot of positive changes during his tenure.

“I will be going into my 16th year this September. I have seen lots of changes. We only did up to Junior Cert initially. We had four part-time staff and six students. The choice of subjects was also limited,” he said.

Mr O’Leary said he has loved every minute of his time working in the Cork Life Centre.

He credits the students and his colleagues for making his time ‘so special’.

“I started a new job and I ended up in a new home. I have my own family and I come home to them every night, but I have ended up being a part of another family. There have been tears and plenty of laughs along the way. I get something out of every day. It has given me and all the staff a place where we can expand our own horizons while challenging the young people to be the best people they can be.

“The staff, whether paid or volunteers, have been brilliant. It is uplifting to see people sitting across from children who are out of school, maybe put out of school. You see them interacting with them, not because they are getting paid on a Friday but because they want to make a difference,” he added.

The role the Cork Life Centre plays in the Cork community has ensured more students are now trying to gain entry and the director said the hardest part of his job is turning students away due to a lack of space.

“It is heartbreaking to talk to parents and know that we can’t do anything. The stigma of young people being out of education just doesn’t impact the young person. It impacts the family.”

Mr O’Leary said the one thing that has never changed during his tenure is the ‘brilliance of the kids’ they work with.

“The one thing which has remained constant has been the brilliance of the kids. I am a firm believer that it is not one size fits all. Children will find different ways of learning. It is important they are given the opportunity to do that. In 2007/08, we put forward our first Leaving Cert student. That first student went back to education recently and has just finished a degree in Youth and Community at UCC.

“We did a massive recruitment drive for volunteers around 2009 and we ended up with a great intake. Our current deputy Rachel Lucey and administrator Craig Hayes came in with that wave. The subject choices increased greatly after this. We now have councillors, we have a drugs counsellor, therapists, a horticulturist and we have a stone engraver,” he added.

As their student numbers increased, their issues with raising much-needed funding also increased said Mr O’Leary.

“When the centre opened in 2000, it was given €50,000 by the Department of Health which came on an annual basis. The money was then cut to €47,500 annually following a review. We are funding dependent. Our trustees have remained constant. Tomar Trust and the Cork Foundation have been very good. We are grateful to so many people. Cork people have been amazing to the Life Centre.

“I always had a worry down through the years with regards to funding. When you take a child in first year you always have a bit of doubt about the project on a long term basis. However thanks to the recent good news, I know now that I have the money required to take that child all the way to Leaving Cert. Despite the funding issues, we have always managed to do the best we can with the service. We have always expanded on what we can deliver for our young people.”

Cork Life Centre currently has 55 students and 70 staff. The director said they offer students a ‘unique experience’.

“Our role is to help students. I take pride in how the staff and students of the centre have developed an alternative education system. We work with young people and have their best interests at heart.

“We are a centre of education. Socialisation is so important particularly if you have children with anxiety or mental health issues. The staff and students all eat lunch together every day. It is not them versus us. We are all in this together. We have seen hundreds of beautiful kids who are probably going through trauma in their lives and the sense of failure that some carry from being out of formal education. They are committed to getting back on track. They trust and believe in the staff. We support them in doing that.

“None of our students are early school leavers as that is blaming the child for failing the system. Children can’t fail the system, the system fails them. For some of the kids, it wasn’t a second chance, it was their first chance. Everyone who came through our door needed to want to be there. I have always believed that our young people deserve to be educated because it is their right,” he said.

Mr O’Leary is very confident Cork Life Centre will continue to play a huge role in the education sector in Cork.

“Success for me is simply a child feeling safe and loved. We want the child to feel they belong, trusted and comfortable. The kids will always get to where they need to get. Let us celebrate kids for what they achieve...

“I am looking forward to seeing the new generation of staff and management take the life centre to where it is going to be. It keeps evolving. Every person who enters the door brings fresh ideas. My belief is that this is going to grow,” he added.

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