FINAL preparations are under way for this year’s Cork Life Centre craft fair, with almost 100 works of art ready for auction, as students and staff get ready for a busy Christmas.
The craft fair — which begins at 7pm on Thursday, December 9 — has been an annual event since the Life Centre’s earliest days, and it has grown in size and popularity over the years.
The Life Centre was founded in 2000 by Brother Gary O’Shea, offering educational opportunities to students let down by the conventional education system. When it opened it had five students, but it currently has 55 students.
The craft fair is open to the public, and will take place outdoors at the centre’s Winter’s Hill premises in Sunday’s Well for the second year running.
Life Centre deputy director Rachel Lucey told The Echo she was hoping for a repeat of last year’s “Christmassy” atmosphere.
“In a strange way, Covid-19 actually provided us with an opportunity, in this one instance at least, and we found the craft fair actually worked better outdoors. The art auction on the night is always great craic and something we all look forward to.
“The fair is a lovely tradition, which goes back to our founder, Brother Gary, and it just gets better every time. Hopefully, the weather will be on our side again this year, but we will have a canopy up just in case,” she said.
Students have been working on art pieces throughout November, in one-hour workshops four days a week, and most of the students have contributed a piece this year.
“The thing about the art auction is that it’s not a fundraiser for the Life Centre, and instead it offers students a chance to earn some money ahead of Christmas.
“The general craftwork profits are divided out and distributed based on cumulative time worked by each student. The art pieces are sold at auction and the artist gets half the price paid, and the other half is added to the overall craft fair pot to be shared.”
For some students, the craft fair is their first opportunity to earn money, and it can instil an appreciation for the value of work, Ms Lucey said.
“It’s lovely to see older students encouraging younger students to get involved, and explaining to them that it can be an opportunity to put together a bit of money for Christmas.
“It can be brilliant too to see young people taking up front-of-house roles on the night, adopting customer service positions and developing self-confidence about dealing with the public.”
Each year, the craft fair marks the start of Christmas at the Life Centre.
The next big milestone for the centre is the Christmas lunch, which traditionally would have had around 200 invited guests, with current and past students and families attending, and would be hosted by the lord mayor.
“This year, like last year, Covid means we’ll be having a smaller lunch, for students and staff only, across two days, in the centre. While we will miss having family and friends here for a big party, it was a lovely get-together last year and hopefully that will be replicated this year,” Ms Lucey said.
Ironically, even though Covid rules mean the lord mayor cannot attend this year’s Christmas lunch, the meal will be served in the two rooms that were once the lord mayor’s dining room and kitchen. The Life Centre’s premises, once the Christian Brothers’ Edmund Rice House, was built as the lord mayor’s residence some 250 years ago, and offers a fine view down to the old Cork Mansion House, which is now the Mercy Hospital.
The Christmas lunch would usually be prepared in-house, but this year the meals are supplied and sponsored by Amazon, which Ms Lucey said had been a great community partner to the centre.
The school term ends the week of the Christmas lunch, but the Life Centre’s Christmas only starts to gear up then.
The week leading up to Christmas is always a hectic time in the Life Centre and this year looks set to be no exception. The old kitchen and dining room will become what Life Centre administrator Thomas Mulcahy referred to as “a hamper factory”, as students and staff assemble up to 1,000 Christmas hampers in what he called “a human conveyor belt”.
The hampers contain soups, pasta, rice, tea, coffee and the like, and always contain an element of “Christmas cheer” such as Roses or mince pies. Donations of non-perishable food are welcomed at the centre, and it’s always a big job to get the hampers assembled and delivered in time for the big day.
“If we’re very lucky, we’ll be wrapped up by the day before Christmas Eve,” Mr Mulcahy said.
This has been a very busy, and often tough, year for the Life Centre, with funding negotiations between the centre and the Department of Education dragging on through the summer and proving fractious at times, even in the wake of an additional €100,000 in funding secured by Cork North Central Fianna Fáil TD Pádraig O’Sullivan and Taoiseach Micheál Martin, bringing the centre’s total annual funding to €177,000.
With talks breaking down on several occasions, centre director Don O’Leary said the department seemed intent on making future funding contingent on the replacement of current Life Centre teachers and tutors with staff supplied from the Cork Education and Training Board. At one point,a frustrated Mr O’Leary said that the department just “doesn’t get” the Life Centre.
He suggested the problem was that the department simply did not understand or appreciate the work of the Life Centre, as it could not imagine any form of alternative education, and it was unwilling to accept that there was what he called a “vast scrapheap of the department’s failures on to which kids are thrown through no fault of their own”.
It would probably be fair to say that the Life Centre, which was officially opened in 2000 by the then education minister Micheál Martin, is a beloved institution in Cork, and it enjoys strong support from across the political spectrum. During the stalled funding negotiations, hundreds of former students, their family members, and friends of the centre took to social media to voice their support.
In September, the Department of Education appeared to bow to political pressure, with Norma Foley, the education minister, doubling the centre’s allocation of co-operation (teaching) hours to 3,000 per annum.
Making that announcement, Ms Foley said: “The alternative arrangements now being put in place provide increased funding for staff already working in the Cork Life Centre and do not involve external staff”.
A department spokesperson said: “The department has engaged with Cork Life Centre (CLC) throughout 2021 in relation to the staffing, funding, and future operation of the centre.
“Currently CLC will receive annual funding of €177,500 from the Department of Education and 6,000 co-operation hours in total, 3,400 funded via Solas by the Department of Further and Higher Education Research Innovation and Science (DFHERIS) and 2,600 funded by this department. This is an increase of support from DE and DFHERIS for Cork Life Centre of €100,000 in additional funding and over 4,000 additional teaching hours.
“The funds from both departments are provided to CLC via Cork Education and Training Board (CETB) in accordance with operational agreements in place between CLC and CETB. This will facilitate the funding of staff already working in CLC and does not involve redeployment of CETB staff. In addition, CLC has an allocation of additional hours to support learners impacted by Covid-19 under the Class (Covid Learning and Support Scheme).
“The department will continue its engagement with CLC. Future arrangements for the centre will be informed and guided by the recommendations of the out-of-school review report in the context of the future development of a national framework for out-of-school provision.”
Last week saw what might potentially be a powerful ally weigh in behind the centre, when members of the Oireachtas committee on education visited Winter’s Hill at the invitation of committee members Pádraig O’Sullivan TD and Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Cork South Central Sinn Féin TD.
After the meeting, the committee chair, Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe, called for increased funding for the centre and said it should be granted the same recognition and model of funding afforded to secondary schools.
Clearly impressed by presentations made to the committee by students and staff, Mr Kehoe told The Echo that he was calling on Ms Foley to visit the Life Centre. He also said that the current model of funding — which sees the centre appealing to the Department of Education for funding every year — was “not sustainable” and needed to change so the centre could plan ahead, as he put it, “five or 10 years into the future”.
Mr Kehoe also echoed something which has been a central argument from Mr O’Leary for years.
“If a student is in the Life Centre, that is a saving for another school and the money should follow the student to the Life Centre,” Mr Kehoe said.
Pledging his committee’s support, he added: “This centre has given great opportunities to countless young people over the past 20 years, achieving fantastic successes, and we want to ensure it can continue for the next 20 years, and beyond.”
Mr Kehoe also took the time to offer the committee’s congratulations to Mr O’Leary, who was last month conferred by University College Cork with an honorary Doctor of Arts in recognition of his work and the work of the Life Centre.
With characteristic modesty, Mr O’Leary said at the time that the accolade belonged mainly to the Life Centre’s staff and students.
“I am passionate about education, and it is the young people I have met in the Cork Life Centre who have been my greatest teachers in life,” he said.
As Christmas arrives, those teachers, the Life Centre’s students and staff, look with optimism to the year ahead.
If you would like to donate to the Cork Life Centre’s hamper appeal, non-perishables can be dropped to 6 Winter’s Hill, Sunday’s Well. Donations may also be made on tel: 021 4304391.