‘If it wasn’t for this place I’d probably be on probation’
What do participants say about the project?
Learning the drill: Paul Riddell and Katie O’Connor with some of the participants in the Junction project at their organic vegetable plot. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
I tell the children they can choose their own pseudonyms, as I won’t be using their real names, and suggest they might like to choose someone they admire. That is how we end up with Usain O’Connor. How would he describe himself? “I’m a mad fisherman, and I fish every day of the week. Eel, pike, perch, trout, roach, carp. My father taught me. I’m here because I got suspended from school for messing and fighting. This is my second year here. I’ll be 16 in eight months’ time.”
Usain says at school he was called names. What kind of names? “Innocent,” he replies flatly. “Handicapped. School has always been difficult since the start.”
He was accommodated by the school in a reduced-hours programme. So what happened then? “They brought me into the project. Bit of help. It’s good.” Usain was brought to the project because of his stealing, his poor school attendance and his classroom behaviour. It wasn’t an unwelcome development . “My family were happy about it. I’m the eldest. There’s seven and myself.”
Usain has now sat his Junior Certificate. With other boys from Ballinasloe Junction Project, in Co Galway, he has been given a place to study for his Leaving Cert with Youthreach, another State-funded programme for children with educational challenges.
Mac is 14 years old but looks a lot younger. He likes soccer and says he plays in midfield. Might he be a soccer player when he is older? “Never,” says Mac. He is not an optimist.
Mac is now the youngest of five. His younger brother died. I get confused about this and call him the second youngest. I apologise. “You’re all right,” says Mac courteously.
When I ask why he is participating in the Project, Mac is pretty clear. Like Usain, he’s on a reduced-hours programme at school. “I get out at 12.30pm. I hit the teacher’s son.” Mac’s view of school is bleak. “ It’s not really great. I don’t do any work. School is boring to me. It’s good for other people. Better people like it. Better people than me.”
Mac likes work, he says. He enjoys building and would like to be a carpenter. His mother works in a nearby clothes shop. “She cleans rooms,” he says. His father goes hunting “rabbits and things”.
The Ballinasloe project is good, he says. “It’s pure different. It brings you out cycling. We went to Croagh Patrick. Before, I’d watch television. Play a game. Wait for my friends. It wasn’t great.”
Do other family members get in trouble? “Older brother. Doesn’t get in trouble no more.” He does not elaborate.
Matthew is a young man of 19, sober and industrious. He has come to the Junction Project office after finishing work, because he wants to praise what it did for him when he was a young teenager.“It’s very good for keeping you on track. Only for here I wouldn’t have finished school. I went to level 5 in Fetac” – the Further Education and Training Awards: there are 10 levels– “in Galway and did carpentry. They constantly encourage you about things here. I was finding school very hard. When I came here I did the Junior Cert.
“The youth workers here were concentrating on the pupils; the classes were smaller.When I said I’d have no thoughts of doing something, they’d say, ‘Just try it once. See what you think.’ So that’s what happened. I just got loads of encouragement.