The Cork Life Centre does things differently so it was fitting that the city did it differently too to honour its inspirational director with a civic award.
Don O’Leary was hailed an inspiration at an outdoor ceremony at the landmark educational facility on Friday as Lord Mayor Colm Kelleher presented a civic award outside City Hall for the first time.
The centre has been a beacon of hope for hundreds of teenagers and their families over the years, providing an alternative learning environment and bespoke second-level education to marginalised young people. Yet it has always had to battle for formal funding.
Mr Kelleher praised Mr O’Leary's contribution to the inclusion and empowerment of young people, encouraging them to engage in education and learning in ways that suit them.
“Cork Life Centre is a beacon to all who are committed to equality of opportunity, and to seeing each person’s potential to participate and thrive in their learning and educational experiences be realised,” he said.
“The seeds that have been planted by Don and the Life Centre team over the years have made an outstanding contribution to the present and future of the city and its people.
Mr O’Leary, who accepted the award just hours after undergoing cancer treatment, said he did so on behalf of his team, and all those who have supported them and their work over the years.
“No one achieves anything on their own,” he said.
He thanked his family, friends, the centre’s staff and volunteers, key advocates who have championed their work and vision, and the business community and benefactors who have helped keep the centre’s doors open.
But he paid special tribute to the students and their families.
“They are the magic ingredient who make it work, who get us out of bed every morning,” he said.
“Whoever might be here receiving this award could not have done so without the support of the people they encounter along the way.”
Breaking with tradition as always at Cork Life Centre 😊 Don is the first recipient of a Civic Award to receive it outside of City Hall and we are so thrilled to have the ceremony here in Sunday'sWell ❤️ pic.twitter.com/iC7bZyPP0a— Cork Life Centre (@CorkLifeCentre) January 28, 2022
He also urged the State to recommit to the principles of those who founded the republic and to cherish all equally.
“We have not done that,” he said.
Mr O’Leary, who was conferred with an honorary degree at UCC last November, was diagnosed with cancer in November 2020.
The following February, he was told it was terminal and that he had less than a year to live.
He spoke movingly just after Christmas about his terminal diagnosis, about his life and his love of the people at the centre, and the impact it has had on peoples’ lives.
Following the award ceremony, the Lord Mayor unveiled a mural created by Life Centre students in association with Cork Community Art Link which commemorates the tragic death of children during the Civil War period.
Mr O'Leary recently spoke on the Mick Clifford podcast about his diagnosis, saying: "I’m at peace with this. Early on, I decided I can’t control the cancer, it’s there, but there are things I can control; what I want to do, who I want to be around and where I want to be. I’m here in the centre that I love.
“I’m working with an amazing group of young people and an amazing staff," he said.
Following the award ceremony this afternoon, the Lord Mayor unveiled murals created by Cork Community Art Link in collaboration with students of the Cork Life Centre.
The work commemorates the tragic death of children during the struggles of the early 1920s and is an initiative of Cork City Council’s Commemoration Programme in collaboration with Cork City Council’s Arts Office and Community Art Link.