You wouldn’t normally expect to see a pool table in a school but the Cork Life Centre isn’t any ordinary school. As its director, Don O’Leary (a youth worker and former Sinn Féin councillor with Cork City Council), points out, it isn’t a school in the traditional sense.
He prefers to call it an education centre. Playing pool is supposed to be an indicator of a misspent youth but for the 52 young people, aged 12-18, attending this relatively unique centre (there is just one other, in Dublin), chilling out in the pool room or spending time in the quiet space in the library, is all part of the holistic approach to education practised here.
Located in a large 17-room Georgian house in Winter’s Hill, Sundays Well, the premises was donated by the Christian Brothers. The centre opened in 2000. The students, made up of young people who may have dropped out of mainstream education due to disadvantaged backgrounds, or because of anxiety issues or difficulties fitting into secondary school, are encouraged to socialise and pursue their passions.
There are currently five students studying Japanese at the centre. They were drawn to the language and culture of Japan as a result of an interest in Japanese cartoons and comics. The centre’s administrator, Thomas Mulcahy, teaches Japanese having previously worked as an interpreter in Japan.
The ethos of the Cork Life Centre is based on a method known as Servol — service volunteered for all. This tool was established in Trinidad by Fr Gerry Pantin in the 1970s.
In 1993, Brother Paul Hendrick spent a year in Trinidad where he came into contact with Fr Pantin and was impressed with his method. He brought the idea back to Ireland and approached the Christian Brothers.
- Philosophy of ignorance, which means no one should ever presume to know what is best for any individual;
- Attentive listening which acknowledges that the person’s voice is the most important in their own development;
- Respectful intervention in order to help a person, with that person’s consent.
Brother Gary O’Shea was the director of Cork Life Centre before stepping down in 2006. O’Leary became the first lay director while Brother Gary became the deputy director. Religion is not taught at the centre. The centre received a much-needed boost recently when it was awarded funding from the Social Innovation Fund Ireland’s education fund with add-on supports and a commitment to further funding over five years. This is supported by Tomar Trust, a Cork-based philanthropic organisation. The centre receives minimal funding from the Department of Education. Despite lobbying the department, O’Leary says it “doesn’t really recognise alternative education”.
There are 65 staff members, 95% of whom are volunteers. O’Leary says: “Part of the ethos of the centre is to have volunteers involved. What greater credit can you give to a young person sitting opposite you than the fact that you’re there not because you’re getting paid but because you want to be there? The volunteers all have degrees but they’re not all trained as teachers.”
As much as possible, the teaching is done on a one-to-one basis.
O’Leary says: “The vast majority of the young people here go as far as the Leaving Cert. Initially, when the centre opened, it catered for young people doing the Junior Cert. They then progressed into other areas. We piloted a Leaving Cert programme. It has gone from strength to strength. We had 14 students dong the Leaving Cert last year. This year, we have another 14 doing it and 13 students doing the Junior Cert. Some of the students go onto third level education.”
O’Leary is not focused on the so-called points race. “We need to look at the issues that young people are facing and support them in dealing with them. For us here, the socialisation process is equally, if not more important, than the academic side of things. One of the issues that arises when the young people come here is their low self-esteem. Sometimes, their relationships with adults have been strained and even relationships with peers can be strained. The young people might have been bullied or were bullies in the past. We see a lot of social anxiety.”
Counselling and therapy is available at the centre with an art therapist, a drama therapist, and a drugs counsellor on hand. The students are generally referred to the centre by education and welfare officers.
“The aspect of the work that causes me most concern is having had to turn away 150 young people last year because I had no places for them,” says O’Leary.
Darragh, a fifth-year student at Cork Life Centre, says he used to be “extremely scared of social interactions. I would have a mental breakdown in groups of more than five people. So I started to look into this centre where my brother had been 10 years ago... I am happy I made the choice. The Cork Life Centre is very adapted to people who are a bit different and it makes them feel comfortable.”
Another student, William, has ambitions to be a champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
“The Cork Life Centre made me realise that I have potential and made me discover who I was... I can do what I want to do and take advantage of opportunities. The centre has made me realise I have potential. If you take a step back, you realise you are helping others too by interacting and socialising. The centre has also had a positive impact on my family and our relationship.”