Teenage angst and a sister’s illness inspired a project to help other young girls, writes Jacqui Corcoran.

When Tammy Darcy was 14 her world fell apart. She was being bullied in school, which was hard enough to cope with.

But then, Shona, the loving, sweet older sister she was very close to, suddenly started to do uncharacteristically unusual things.

One day Shona fell off her bike for no reason. On another day the 15-year-old sat down on the road and said she couldn’t walk anymore. Her feisty little sister was having none of it.

“I told her to get up,” recalls Tammy. “I shouted at her to stop being stupid.”

Eventually, Tammy had to get her father to come and carry Shona home. Shona was diagnosed shortly after with an acquired brain injury. In the ensuing months, Shona’s life hung in the balance. She was taken to the UK for surgery.

“They saved her life,” says Tammy. “But it was more like they prevented her death. You wouldn’t wish her life on your worst enemy.”

In the midst of her struggles to cope with the bullying and Shona’s illness, Tammy was hit with another disaster when her seemingly happy parents told her they were separating.

Shona, Tammy and their 10-year-old brother were asked which parent they wanted to stay with. They chose, for various childish reasons, to live with their father.

“It was all what I’d call a trauma, but it’s not unusual. I wasn’t in an earthquake or a plane crash. I wasn’t stabbed. I just went through a family situation that is really common. But because it’s so common people don’t realise how tough it is.”

Tammy coped by acting out and, as she describes it, making bad decisions. She moved out of home at 16 and was pregnant at 18.

Roll on the years and Tammy today is a well-adjusted, confident woman. Living in the Waterford countryside, the outgoing mother-of-three has a successful career and happy marriage.

But she has never forgotten her 14-year-old self, and what it felt like to go through those troubled teenage years.

“I used to wonder how it might have been for me back then if there had been an intervention or a support system there when my parents were not in a position to give that support. I’m always careful to say that I don’t blame them. I didn’t have bad parents, but they just weren’t able for it all.”

Through work in education and work as a soccer coach, Tammy recognised herself in some of the girls she encountered. She says she was hard on herself growing up, but girls today are even harder on themselves and harder on each other.

“It’s like they’re not allowed to make a mistake and you can get a label put on you if you do. For example, there’s a fine line between being too slutty and being a prude.

"I think, in my time, the last person to cross that line was Sandy in Grease! She changed what the world thought of her, but you shouldn’t have to put on a pair of tight black pants to do that. Even just these negative ideas that you can’t be beautiful and smart or sporty and smart or whatever are so damaging.”

Witnessing the struggles of girls today made Tammy want to find a way to help, a way to get some positive messages to them.

In September 2016 she founded The Shona Project, a non-profit organisation set up to educate, inspire and empower girls and young women and give them the tools they need to navigate the challenges of teenage life.

The organisation has rapidly established a reputation for the positive work it’s doing. It received the prestigious Social Entrepreneurs Ireland award recently.

“It’s an amazing validation of what we’re doing, but you can’t be driven by awards or any of this media attention or whatever because you have to be driven by what you’re trying to do. I’ve never had a second of doubt that this wasn’t going to work out. It brought all my background and skills together.

"A lot of people who set up a structured organisation to create social change come from a social background. My background is in education, sport and business management, but my own teenage life experiences gave me other tools to make this work.

"You can go to college and learn the academic side of helping young people, but there’s a lot to be said for being able to completely identify with them and put yourself into their shoes, which you can’t do unless you’ve struggled yourself.”

Naming the organisation after her sister Shona, explains Tammy, gives them a symbolic link.

“It’s upsetting that she’s not aware of what’s going on. She’s been in full-time care for the past six years. I went in to see her one day recently and I said ‘you and me are changing the world, we’re doing this together.’

"I knew she wouldn’t understand, but I just wanted to say it.”

Shona today is a troubled woman, she needs round-the-clock nursing. The kind, easy going Shona is a thing of the past. Shona can be violent, she hears voices and believes that Tammy is the devil. Tammy’s visits to her sister are difficult and sad, but Shona is always in her thoughts.

“It’s tough, but it was even tougher when she was just invisible in the world. Now everyone who’s involved in The Shona Project knows who she is. It gives her life meaning. She has never been an adult who could do anything for herself, but now her existence is having an impact on others.

"I find it so hard to see Shona, this is my way of connecting with her.”

When Tammy describes Shona as a child, before the effects of her brain damage manifested, she describes a girl who was very kind, soft, thoughtful and gentle.

Her sister’s innate kindness stayed with Tammy, and it’s that sentiment that is at the heart of The Shona Project.

“Encouraging kindness is what it’s all about. Being kind to oneself and to others. Everybody can be that.

"There are lots of things you might aspire to that it’s not in your nature or makeup or whatever, to be, but every single person has the capacity to be kind to other people. It’s a really simple thing.”


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