Penny Dinners offers key to brighter future

High walls hide a hive of activity as builders on stilts expertly plaster and polish what will be Cork Penny Dinners' brand new day centre in the city.

Penny Dinners offers key to brighter future

High walls hide a hive of activity as builders on stilts expertly plaster and polish what will be Cork Penny Dinners' brand new day centre in the city.

No longer content with feeding, clothing, training and providing a vital sense of community for people struggling across the city and county, volunteers at the charity will soon also host a large training kitchen visited by celebrity chefs, a medical and dentistry centre, education and meeting rooms.

"We were thinking about it for a good couple of years and researching it," says Catriona Twomey, Cork's fun and irreverent answer to Mother Teresa who runs Penny Dinners.

"We travelled to Manchester and Dublin to see what they were doing at centres there," she said.

"We wanted to make sure that we didn't reinvent the wheel," added Gary Heslin, a retired firefighter who is now Cork Penny Dinners honorary chairman.

"There were so many gaps in the system we had to decide how to fill them," says Catriona.

"The doctors and dentists will be there for people who have homes but are struggling to pay the rent," she said.

"And meeting rooms will be available so that people who are homeless have somewhere safe to bring their children. Creating good childhood memories is so important. Our childhood impacts us all."

The centre is due for completion in February but the board at Cork Penny Dinners has already completed three two-person apartments to help homeless people get off the streets.

On Sunday, six men who were homeless moved into brand new apartments where flowers peer jauntily from donated window boxes that perch on the bedroom balconies.

Noticing some framed pictures propped carefully on a sitting room shelf, Catriona grabs Charles Galvin of BWS Construction who oversees her building projects, and asks him to hang them - always with one eye open for how she can make something better for someone else.

"The accommodation has been a direct result of talking to people who wanted to turn their lives around but couldn't find anywhere to live" Catriona said.

"Homelessness is a catch-22. Just surviving takes up all your time so it's hard to get out of it.

"We had a strict selection process. Anyone coming has to be clean and has to come to our recovery meetings at Penny Dinners every Tuesday night.

"All the men volunteer with us too. Three of them have just started work, one is in education and one is due to start work before Christmas.

"It's a two year programme and after that they'll get a reference from us and they'll move into council accommodation."

Gary said: "Some people have had major turmoil in their lives. They've been knocked back but this is their Damascus moment where they have the option to stay on the proper road through life.

When we handed the keys to one man, he's 36 or 37, you could see tears in his eyes. He said it was the first time in his life when he had held the keys to his own front door.

Catriona said: "It's not easy being on the streets. And it affects so many people, we know people who are homeless and working. They just can't find accommodation."

Gary said: "They say you're only ever three pay cheques away from homelessness. You get sick, you lose a child, you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, something happens and suddenly your life has spiralled out of control and you're down an alley drinking cider to numb the pain."

Catriona said: "And who are we to judge? I'm not sleeping on the street at night scared and in pain."

Cork Penny Dinners serves more than 2,000 meals a week to hungry people across the city. Before the recession it often served just 100.

And volunteers at Penny Dinners have worked hard to meet the rising demand, providing not just food and clothing but a sense of community, care and support.

Evenings are filled with mindfulness, cooking or music classes and their High Hopes Choir has collaborated with major artists including Bono, Kodaline and Christy Moore and made it onto the charts three times.

And Christmas Day is a seriously merry and musical affair with singing sensation Karen Underwood and pianist John O'Brien performing before the Barrack Street Brass and Reed band marches down the lane at Little Hanover Street and into Cork Penny Dinners.

The four star River Lee Hotel provides a three course meal on December 25th to more than 200 people and Santa comes from Kent Station on the Polar Express to give out "a brace of presents".

"I'd say it's the liveliest place in Europe," Catriona says with a smile.

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