Diocesan service gives disadvantaged youngsters second chance to make a success of their lives
The Kerry Youth Diocesan Service has been hiding its light under a bushel. This wonderful organisation has been achieving remarkable things for many years but it has scarcely let the public in on the secret. Naturally, given the scope of its operations, it has not gone unnoticed in Kerry. Nevertheless, it's about time its work was brought to the attention of a wider audience.
The service takes in the entire diocese of Kerry and includes parts of Co Cork such as Castletownbere and the Millstreet area.
It caters for 4,000 young people on a weekly basis and takes an imaginative and sympathetic approach to their needs.
The service was established in Killarney in 1971 and has grown out of all recognition.
It seeks to help youngsters from disadvantaged areas as well as those from other rungs on the social ladder.
Help with literacy and numeracy is offered nowadays at centres in Tralee, Listowel and Killarney, and programmes have been designed to give self-respect back to young people who have dropped out of the education system for one reason or another.
The organisation is not judgmental. Its mission from the start was to improve the lives of younger people who might otherwise have been left behind.
Part of the service includes a youth information programme which advises early school-leavers and helps those still at school with such questions as "What do I really want to do after school?" and "Where do I go now?"
Other issues include sexually-transmitted disease, which has shown a marked increase in Kerry, and the drugs menace.
It is reckoned, says Mr Tim O'Donoghue, the project development co-ordinator, that Killarney is the base from which illegal drugs are distributed throughout the county.
The service also finds itself dealing with increasing numbers of early pregnancies and young people whose lives are in crisis because of drug addiction.
The service has 50 full-time staff, backed up by 40 part-time workers and 500 volunteers.
That brings the number of people involved to almost 600, a staggering local effort. To date, £880,000 has been raised by voluntary effort as well.
It costs an estimated £500,000 a year to make the service possible.
Funding comes in part from the EU, the Southern Health Board and Kerry Educational Services.
Two years ago Killarney Urban District Council conducted a survey of the social and recreational needs of young people in the town, and a particular problem was identified: young people had no dedicated place, safe from drugs and drink-free, where they could congregate.
That is now being addressed, and the Government has committed £650,000 to provide a youth centre in the town. It will be in the old Franciscan Friary, in space donated by the dwindling community. It was a timely gift, and the building contract has already been signed.
Work will begin this month, and the refurbished building and a new addition will be ready by next September.
The friary, opened in 1870, was where Irish Franciscan novices did their training. Now the five remaining friars will move to a nearby building and the novitiate will be located elsewhere.
It's a sad day for the Killarney Franciscans, but by their gesture they have continued a proud record of service to the town.
The new youth centre will include a creche for single mothers as part of the retraining programme for early school-leavers.
The reason many young girls drop out of the education system is that pregnancy prevents them from continuing, Tim O'Donoghue says. If they wanted to keep their babies but had no help with caring for them, what else could they do but leave school?
The creche will mean that young mothers who wish to begin training for a job or who opt to re-enter the education system will be able to leave their children in a safe, supervised environment while they pursue their ambitions.
For a lot of young people the creche will make a huge difference.
But it's not just about going back to school. Tim O'Donoghue says not all the young people he meets in his work want to return.
Many have artistic tendencies and wish to explore possibilities along these lines.
The service provides the answer. There are courses in photography, samba and even circus skills, among others. How about learning to ride a unicycle?
Since its inception there have been successes of note and there will continue to be: of that Tim O'Donoghue has no doubt.
People with literacy problems have been brought in from the cold and given a new lease of life.
Those whose problems seemed too difficult to be solved have received a helping hand and are on a new and confident track.
The service-run courses, certified by UCC, are much sought after. A variety of agencies involved with young people such as the Garda, teachers, social workers and FAS employees also use the expertise on offer.
It has broken new ground in Kerry and is flourishing precisely because it makes a difference.