Cork's Life Centre faces up to potential closure

Don O'Leary, director of Cork Life Centre, Sundays Well, with Jason Kelleher, one of the volunteer teachers at the centre. Pic: Denis Minihane

YOU would struggle to find it on a map and it definitely takes a few circuits in the car but the Life Centre in Cork City is, for some early school-leavers, the ultimate destination.

That’s ultimate, as in, the last stop, the place where if you can’t make your education stick, then there may be no alternatives available.

The Cork Life Centre is one of four on the island of Ireland, with two others in Dublin and one in Belfast. However, the Cork centre, based in a beautiful old building in Sunday’s Well in the city, is the largest and is proving so popular it has been turning away referrals as it can’t take them in.

That’s one side of the story. As its director, former Sinn Féin member of Cork City Council, Don O’Leary, outlines, the Life Centre may be lifeless come next summer. Opened only in 2000, the core funding provided by the Christian Brothers is being wound down and despite pleas to the Department of Education and other government departments to step in, that commitment has yet to be made.

Don O’Leary puts the cost of running the three centres here at €300,000. The Cork centre is currently offering educational training to 40 young people between the ages of 12 and 18, all of whom have left mainstream education and who can pursue Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations with one-on-one tuition in subjects provided by a small number of full-time staff and hordes of volunteers.

For Don O’Leary, the failure of state departments to guarantee a funding stream into the future is a “pound foolish” approach. He argues that if just three of the children who attend the Life Centre had gone down another road and ended up in a youth detention facility such as Oberstown, the amount of money spent to keep that child there would equate to a significant chunk of the funding used to keep the service in Sunday’s Well open.

“There is nobody stepping into the breach and it has to be addressed,” he said.

Clare*, a second-year student, found herself incapable of following the rules in her old school, which led to conflict with teachers. On beginning study at the Life Centre her whole approach to education has turned around and she is focussed on studying veterinary in third-year. Her mother, sitting beside her for the interview, says: “This place has been a lifesaver. Her whole personality has changed — it’s one big happy family here.”

This has manifested itself most obviously in her early morning demeanour. Where previously she had to be prised from her bed and escorted out the door, now she is up and showered, keen to set off.

Another girl feels that she was unfairly targeted by teachers in her old school as the sole source of messing and disruption in her classes. “They just used to pick on me for the craic,” she says.

“I used to get into trouble for nothing. If it was not for Don taking me in I would have just dropped out.”

She is now taking 10 subjects in her junior certificate, with the one-on-one teaching style meaning “there are no distractions, no one at the back of the class taking the piss out of the teacher“.

Michael, an articulate lad, had been attending a city school which, despite its resources, didn’t fit his personality. He can now study home economics and says he wants to become a chef. He loves the music club in the Life Centre, while his mum is considerably less stressed since he has settled into his new environment.

The staff and volunteers also take an obvious delight in their work. Ali Robertson is a creative arts therapist who began as a volunteer and now is paid by the parents who can afford it. She currently works with four young people.

“They would never consider it a class,” she says of the attitudes of the students to what she does.

“They would speak to me about their issues or troubles. It often is the first time they have unburdened themselves. I feel that they trust me and they may not trust anybody else in their lives. It is difficult to build up trust, it does take a long time but the real message is that we often talk about disadvantage, about it having a sense of ‘belonging’, but what I hear is being excluded from school and activities is lonely.”

Craig Hayes is a tutor for history and maths for junior cert students and also takes film and media classes for those taking the leaving certificate.

“You fall in love with the kids — there is a great sense of community between kids and staff,” he says.

THE tailored class structure means the students’ imaginations can be expressed to the full, something that would be harder to achieve in a classroom full of 30 teenagers. Craig says that while exam results are important, it’s not the only way in which the progress of a student can be gauged — “it’s a life education”, he says.

His colleague, art teacher Corrina Moore, now in her third year at the Life Centre, believes that the atmosphere there is “more conducive” to learning, and that there will always be some students for whom the conventional classroom structure is a bad fit.

Jason Kelleher, who teaches history, CSPE and some geography, has been working there full time for the past year and is not long out of his HDip. He did work in a school elsewhere before joining the Life Centre, and recalls how he became antagonised by one person he perceived as a “troublemaker” in one of his classes, yet he found in a quiet moment at the end of the year that despite their “antagonistic” relationship, the young fella had actually enjoyed the lessons and felt he had gained something from them. It proved instructive to how life would be at the Life Centre.

“Structurally it’s not possible to provide that [one-on-one tuition model] in a mainstream setting,” he says, admitting that for many students a conventional school setting is perfectly fine but here, “the first time I could see them learning what I was teaching them, that was the most rewarding that I have felt”.

According to Don, some children can be excluded from the Life Centre, adding: “It happens every now and then.”

Those occasional failures only serve to highlight the successes, he maintains.

“The academic side of it is hugely important and progressing the young person, but socialisation is also hugely important,” he says.

“There is a moment for every staff member that you click with one of the young people and you remember it for the rest of your life.”

And now it seems those moments at the Life Centre may be few and far between.

“If you don’t know who’s going to pay for the heating, the lighting, the meals, everything else that goes with the centre, the copybooks, the tables, the chairs, then yes, there is a likelihood that we could lose three very vibrant centres that care for young people’s education,” according to Don.

He claims that when in opposition, the current Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, had been supportive of the work of the Life Centres. Asked directly about the funding provision for the Life Centres, Mr Quinn said: “I would just draw your attention to the fact that the Christian Brothers are severely in arrears in the amount of monies they owe the State with regards to the redress institutions. The Christian Brothers have the resources to address this issue.”

And there’s the rub. The tardiness or inability of the religious orders to foot the bill for decades of damage wrought on many victims of abuse, now seeking redress, has been widely criticised. Privately, the Christian Brothers maintain that the value of its property portfolio is considerably less now than it was even four years ago. The smaller number of Brothers teaching means there is less money in the pot to be dispersed to projects, and there seems little chance that more money will be found in the CB coffers to keep the Life Centre operating as it has been.

It all means that, come next September, locating the Life Centre in Sunday’s Well, hidden as it is around an almost invisible bend and up a small laneway, under an arch, may not be on anyone’s agenda.

* The names of the students have been changed


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