A toast to Lakers, Irish Distillers spirit and Difference Days like this

Some of the Irish Distillers volunteers involved in the Difference Day for the Lakers club for people with an intellectual disability in south Dublin whose premises, buses and equipment was destroyed in a fire last October.

I watched a three-part phenomenon at work last week. The promise it made was remarkable — so much so that I admit I was sceptical about the possibilities.

But the phenomenon delivered — in spades — and the result was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve had for years.

The first part of the phenomenon was Lakers. The second part was, of all things, 280 employees of Irish Distillers, one of the great Irish brands.

It was an amazing mix. And the thing that bound them all together — the third bit — was another Irish company, whose ambition and imagination seems to know no bounds, called Difference Days.

I hope you know something about Lakers, if only because I’ve written about it here before. It’s a club for people with an intellectual disability.

I work for the club on a voluntary basis (my daughter Mandy wouldn’t take no for an answer), and we provide a huge range of services for the 400 people who come.

We don’t call them service users, or clients, or patients. They’re our members. They sit on our board and we seek to respond to their needs and demands.

Sporting and cultural activities, friendship and fun, growth and development are all part of the mix we’re trying to build. We’re a long way from getting it right, but we will, because our members insist and because our families are so involved.

Last October we suffered a devastating loss because the building we inhabited then, our small fleet of buses, and most of our equipment were all destroyed in a middle of the night fire. No one was hurt, but the future of the club was in serious doubt.

But out of tragedy good things come. Our small staff team was miraculous in how they responded, getting activities going again with borrowed halls, borrowed equipment, borrowed buses. The community of Bray and the wider south Dublin area rallied around us.

The Presbyterian community in Bray immediately loaned us an old schoolhouse in the heart of the town, and we’re now their tenants.

So we’re up and running, trying to meet the needs of our members every day. And it’s working — we’re planning a formal relaunch at the end of this month, to try to show the world how far we’ve come from disaster.

But there’s only so much you can do with limited resources.

The challenge is how to turn our building, which is perfectly usable and as safe and welcoming as we can make it, into something that our members can truly be proud of, something that promises them a really exciting future.

CEO and Chairman of Irish Distillers, Conor McQuaid.
CEO and Chairman of Irish Distillers, Conor McQuaid.

Give me a day to transform it, suggested Denis O’Reilly. Just one day is all it will take.

Denis O’Reilly runs Difference Days.

It’s a company that finds projects in the community that need corporate support to help them grow, and finds companies whose staff are looking for something exciting and different to get their teeth into.

If they want to make a real difference, he shows them how it can be done in just one day.

And the way he does that is by sending a small team of professionals — carpenters, designers, artists, into the community project for weeks in advance, scheming and planning and getting the site as ready as it can be. In Lakers, we got used to seeing mountains of sand and huge piles of planks arrive and get stored in different parts of our site.

Even as we saw the plans taking shape it still seemed highly unlikely that everything Denis was proposing could be done in a day.

It would take hundreds of volunteers to organise the kind of makeover he had in mind — the complete development of a new garden, artworks on every external wall, water features, gazebos, a tiny 5-a-side all weather pitch and a putting green, areas for growing and planting, a barbecue area, picket fencing around the entrance and the carpark, and loads more.

It all seemed kind of mad.

Then last Wednesday, a lorry arrived with dozens of wheel barrows, hundreds of shovels, and loads more equipment.

Difference Days artist, Nikki Roberts, had spent days capturing some of the equipment that had been damaged in the fire, but still had sentimental value for us, and figuring out how to incorporate golf clubs and tennis balls into sensational three-dimensional frescoes to be hung around our garden and on the picket fencing.

And suddenly, on our Difference Day, Irish Distillers arrived. Hundreds of them, in buses that had come mainly from the bottling plant in Tallaght, all smiling, all with their sleeves rolled up. Some 280 of them altogether, led by their CEO Conor McQuaid.

Irish Distillers have done this before. In fact once a year their 12,000 employees around the world (that’s some figure for an Irish brand, isn’t it?) down tools and take part in a socially responsible project wherever they are.

Killian O’Mahony, Cooper at Midleton Distillery. Picture: Cathal Noonan.
Killian O’Mahony, Cooper at Midleton Distillery. Picture: Cathal Noonan.

And last Thursday, in Lakers, they were as good as their word.

They instantly and magically formed into teams, using Difference Days’ amazing logistics, and got stuck in. For the entire day they swarmed all over our premises and grounds. It looked chaotic, but gradually you could begin to see it coming together.

And suddenly, we had a premises to be proud of, green spaces that hadn’t been there before, placesto sit and enjoy, more space to be creative in and to grow in.

A lot of our own members had come and worked on the day too, and at the end there were hugs and handshakes of congratulations. We presented Conor with a piece of art that our members had done, and he expressed the visible pride of the Irish Distillers team in what they had achieved.

They knew it wasn’t impossible, because they’ve worked with Difference Days before and pulled off similar miracles. But for us, the impossible had been achieved.

They did in one day what it would take us years to fundraise for and plan and design and build — a place for our members to see as a welcoming home, somewhere they’ll be proud to show off.

The thing about it is this. It was just a little project, well prepared, well organised, well executed. But it couldn’t have happened without the imagination of Denis O’Reilly and the talent and creativity of his extraordinary team.

It couldn’t have happened without the support and buy-in of a busy senior management team in Irish Distillers, people who I have no doubt cope with pressures of their own every day.

And it couldn’t have happened without 280 willing and able volunteers, who put aside a day of their working lives to make an extraordinary difference in ours. They did it not just with a smile, but with a huge degree of professionalism and quality.

You don’t come across that mix all the time. The blend of volunteering with a high commitment to quality is difficult to achieve and maintain.

But when you see it in action, it’s a really uplifting thing. Because the difference it makes is not just deep-seated, it’s sustainable too. You really can make a difference in a day, and make it last for years.

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