One Dublin house, one week, 1,200 children
Many of the young guests at St Vincent de Paul’s Sunshine House don’t know the regularity of three meals a day
It’s all about the beach at Sunshine House, Balbriggan, where St Vincent de Paul host children for a week’s summer holiday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Water play: about 1,200 children between the ages of seven and 11 will spend a week at Sunshine House, Balbriggan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Tom McMahon is a volunter at Sunshine House, Balbriggan. McMahon has been volunteering a week each summer for 13 years. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The dormitory at Sunshine House, Balbriggan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
One of the old supermarket trolleys used to transport the buckets and spades to the beach. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The bathroom at Sunshine House, Balbriggan, where St Vincent de Paul host children for a week’s summer holiday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The dormitory’s bookshelf at Sunshine House, Balbriggan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
There’s a bright yellow flag flying outside a building that looks like an old convent on Church Street in Balbriggan. It’s the official flag of the Sunshine Fund, and this is Sunshine House; a building owned and run by the St Vincent de Paul Society, which has been hosting children for summer holidays since 1935.
“It’s still a bucket and spade holiday,” says house manager Ethna McQuillan, describing the week that a child will have here as she shows me around. There’s a storeroom downstairs, with three decommissioned supermarket shopping trolleys all crammed with well-used buckets and spades. The volunteers who live in for a week at a time use the trolleys to transport the buckets and spades to the beach, a 10-minute walk away.
Over the summer, about 200 volunteers will work here, not including the 13 paid members of staff who work in the kitchen and keep the house clean.
Tom MacMahon is the head volunteer for the week I visit, and has been volunteering a week of his time each summer for 13 years. “It’s a whole other environment for the children,” he says. “It’s not a family holiday, and it’s not a school tour. The whole focus is on the children, and giving them time.”
“Mount Chilliard is the biggest mountain in America,” says Ryan, shovelling sand. “So that’s why we’re called that.”
The Sunshine Angels team are Annabel, Jasmine, Tobi, Abi and Eunice. “We’ve called ourselves after Sunshine House, and we’re angels because we’re girls,” Annabel says.
Abi is doing splits on the beach. “I love everything,” she says simply, when asked what she is enjoying about the week.
“I love the beach,” Tobi says.
“The food,” Jasmine says, so quietly I have to bend down to hear her.
The menu at Sunshine House is simple: pizza, beans on toast, fish fingers, spaghetti hoops, burgers, jelly and ice cream. In the mornings, along with cereal, there is a different piece of fruit each day; a banana, orange or apple. On Sundays, there is oven-roasted chicken, peas, carrots and potato croquettes. Basic as the food is, it’s more than some of these children get at home.
“Many of our young guests do not know the regularity of three meals a day,” Mary Galligan, president of the Sunshine Fund, said earlier this year.
What becomes slowly evident on the beach is although the children are enthusiastic about trying to build the tallest sand mountain, what many of them are really most interested in is the attention of the volunteers.
“If we write your name on the sandcastle, do we get extra points?” one enterprising boy asks volunteer Sinead Greene.
“Can you put my hair up in a bun?” a little girl asks her next.
“Can you bury me in the sand?” a small boy asks Tom MacMahon.
Others just come up at random to hug the volunteers and linger near them. The volunteers are traditionally called Brother and Sister – or more accurately “Brutha” and “Sista” – by the children, with the idea being they are temporary big brothers and sisters.
This summer alone, about 1,200 children between the ages of seven and 11 will spend a week in Balbriggan. The season is 13 weeks, and such is the demand for places and the recognised benefit to children, that schools allow those who take up their places in May and June to be absent for a week.
Sunshine House is not grand. It’s spotlessly clean, but the dormitory walls are completely bare, and the faded duvet covers on the beds look as if they’ve been washed very many times.
Each dormitory is named after a saint: the Little Flower, Laurence O’Toole, Maria Goretti, Patrick, John Bosco, Brigid, Bernadette.
The single painted bookcase in each room is mostly empty. The few books are well-thumbed, several of them by Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson: the children are read a story each night before lights out.
The week I am there, the house received a large donation of Haribo sweets. Perhaps someone else might consider donating new linen.
When the weather is good, the week is all about being outside: at the beach, on the football field opposite the house, in the five acre grounds, which has lots of play equipment. There’s a picnic once at week in the grounds of nearby Ardgillan Castle. There’s an outing to a shopping centre too once a week and, on wet days, there’s a soft play area inside, a computer room and a karaoke room. In the evenings, there’s a disco and films.
The children who come are there for different reasons: they would not get a holiday otherwise; their parents need respite; or the child needs respite from a difficult home situation. Parents do not pay anything; all they are asked is to ensure their child has €10 pocket money for the week. On Tuesdays and Thursday, they get €5, and can spend it as they like.
“Most children try to buy little presents for their families,” McQuillan says. They get a discount at the Vincent de Paul shop in Balbriggan.
Every child goes home at the end of the week with a prize. It might be for catching the ugliest crab, or helping to build the tallest sandcastle, or having the best smile, or the best teamwork, but nobody leaves without a new toy, as well as the memories of a holiday they would not have had otherwise.