Dean Rock doing his bit as reality of pandemic hits home

‘The frontline care-workers are doing incredible work. It’s inspiring to be around it’

Dublin’s Dean Rock prepares to take a free during the All-Ireland football final against Kerry in 2019. Photograph:  Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Dublin’s Dean Rock prepares to take a free during the All-Ireland football final against Kerry in 2019. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

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Conundrum time, hot shot. You’re in the park, on your daily two-kilometre jailbreak. A friendly sun glides you along and for a minute you lose track of yourself, of time, of the mad, bad world we’re in. Just for that minute, there’s no pandemic, no lockdown, no social distancing. Nothing only you and the grass and the breeze and the . . . oh, FFS, that poxy gang of 14-year-olds that are yahooing and harooing down by the goalposts.

What do you do? Do you say anything? Do you go over and remind them that this thing will only go away if everybody does what they’re supposed to? Do you give out to them for being selfish? Or do you leave them at it, deciding you don’t need the hassle?

Dean Rock is neither a vigilante nor a busybody. You would struggle to come across a more live-and-let-live sort than he. It’s just that right now, live and let live has taken on a different kind of meaning than before. And where he works, they’ve seen too much over the past month to hesitate if a group of kids needs scattering.

Rock is the fundraising manager for Stewarts Care, the centre for people with intellectual disabilities in Palmerstown in Dublin. The outbreak has had a massive effect, from the work they’re able to do with the 200 or so people they have on-site to the disruption caused to their 1,000 clients out in the community. In its 150-year history, Stewarts has never had to overcome anything like this. So yeah, he’ll say something if he sees something.

“When you see a group of young lads hanging out together,” he says, “you do think, ‘Well, this just defeats the purpose of everything everybody is doing.’ I haven’t been afraid to say it to the odd group I’d see out and about, definitely not. A few of the young lads might listen to me now and again. If it registers with one of them and one less goes out in that group the next time, well that reduces the rate of infection and the chances of a bigger spread.

“I would have a different outlook to a lot of people because I see what’s going on in Stewarts and the impact this virus is having. When people aren’t in that line of work or don’t see it on a daily basis, they can be a little bit lackadaisical about it and not focused on adhering to the restrictions. But I think the majority of people have been really, really good and in terms of flattening the curve, we’re somewhat on the way to doing it and achieving the goal.”

The past six weeks have been bedlam, he says. Rock’s fundraising role has had to take a back seat while he makes himself available for the simpler nuts and bolts stuff around the place. He’s been part-caterer, part-courier, part-gofer, part-errand runner. Whatever’s needed to support his colleagues at the sharpest end of it all.

“I’m on the periphery of things. I’m working on the outside, trying to do what I can for the organisation and the people who are right in the midst of it. I’m on campus obviously but I’m not in the homes themselves. The frontline care-workers are doing incredible work. It’s inspiring to see it and be around it.

Dean Rock, James McCarthy and Con O’Callaghan celebrate Dublin’s win over Kerry in the All-Ireland final replay last September. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Dean Rock, James McCarthy and Con O’Callaghan celebrate Dublin’s win over Kerry in the All-Ireland final replay last September. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“How they’re coping with the situation is kind of stunning. It can’t be easy to be literally stuck in the house for 24 hours in the day. You can’t get out, which is hugely challenging. Usually they’d be able to get out for walks and go to the local café but they just don’t have that at the moment. What they’re doing for service users of Stewarts and what they’re doing for Irish society in general is hugely inspiring. I’m just very proud to be associated with people like that.

“It’s natural that there’s a huge amount of fear. Organisations like ourselves are going to have to get into a new way of conducting business. Who knows whether things will ever go back to normality again? It’s going to be a long time before we get past things like social distancing and that completely changes what we do.

“This is new to everybody. Slowly but surely, things have become normal in their own way. A pandemic is a crazy time for society but these people are doing amazing work to contain it and keep the spread of it down.”

Out in the community, the problems are different and, in their own way, more knotted. The whole idea of Stewarts is based on personal development and independence. In normal times, it’s a progressive approach to helping a group of people that society rarely prioritises. But it relies a lot on normal human connection, the stuff you never think about.

“Within Stewarts, we have a full-time canteen that is staffed by a lot of service users, different cafes and so on. We have a flower shop in the local community that our guys work in. There’s a JAS (Job Advocacy Service) scheme that provides a link to employment – so a lot of our service users would be working in places like SuperValu, Starbucks and Costa, places like that. And that’s all been removed and taken away from them now. It’s pretty much their day-to-day life.

“They go in for their physical activity, they would engage in a gym programme on a weekly basis on campus and that’s been taken away from them as well. We are doing online programmes with them but it’s not the same. Exercising by yourself rather than with your friends and family isn’t easy for anyone.

“Their jobs, their social life, it’s all just gone. So you get into mental health worries then, wellbeing and things like that. And those with intellectual disabilities are quite a vulnerable group already. It’s massively challenging.”

Rock has gradually started to get his fundraiser hat back on as the weeks have passed. There’s never enough money, even in good times. But the need is more pressing than ever just now. Out of nowhere, a huge swathe of their client base has become isolated in their own homes and don’t have much beyond a phone with which to stay in contact with the outside world.

Dublin’s Dean Rock celebrates his goal against Mayo in the Allianz Football League Division 1 game at Elvery’s MacHale Park in February. Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho
Dublin’s Dean Rock celebrates his goal against Mayo in the Allianz Football League Division 1 game at Elvery’s MacHale Park in February. Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho

“A lot of our service users live at home and they may not have – and don’t have, in a lot of cases – the resources for communication that most people take for granted. It’s a big void suddenly appearing in their life. Basically if we can raise enough money to at least get them an iPad or a tablet so that they can interact with their friends and feel connected in some way to the people in their life, then we can start filling in that void.”

And so, next Friday (May 1st), he and four other Stewarts Care colleagues are attempting to run 150km inside the Palmerstown campus between sun-up and sun-down. Each of them will do 30km, running relay legs of 5km apiece from early morning and hoping to get it completed before the sun sets in the early evening. Presumably, as the elite sportsman of the field, Rock will be expected to keep the pace high?

“If they’re relying on me, we’re in big trouble,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t normally be running 30km in a day, I’ll tell you that. There’s a one-kilometre track around the bungalows so yeah, five laps of that and then take your break for a couple of hours and go again. There’s a few other groups doing it in their own places as well. Ballymun are doing it, the Dublin minors are doing it. Hopefully we raise a few quid.”

On the football side of things, his club and county teams exist now only in the ether. You are a face on WhatsApp now, a team-mate on Zoom. He keeps to his routines and does his running and kicking out of habit as much as anything. This weekend would have been the second round of the Dublin club championship. Westmeath were first up in Leinster a month from now. It’ll all happen when it’ll happen.

“Initially as it started, everybody was upbeat and determined to make the best of it. It was fresh and there was a novelty to it. There was a huge amount of engagement and drive and hoping that this would all pass in a number of weeks, maybe we’d just miss the end of the national league, maybe we’d just miss a few clubs games, that kind of thing. But the novelty is kind of wearing off of training by yourself.

“I think people are getting a bit anxious about it now. They want some sort of clarification from the GAA in terms of what the likelihood of a championship is going to be, what’s the club situation going to be, will we be playing a winter All-Ireland, all that kind of thing. I know it’s very difficult for them to make that call because they have to wait on advice from the health authorities. So everybody understands.

“There’s days when it goes well for you and there’s days when the motivation is low. It’s very difficult to train when you don’t see a fixture list in sight or when you don’t have a six-week or eight-week target up ahead. Generally, I suppose you’re really only just doing the exercise for your mental health and physical wellbeing and that’s good in itself. It’s important to tip away but it is very challenging when you don’t know what’s around the corner.”

For now, the corner seems a distance away. Rock can only put one foot in front of the other, like everybody else. The run next Friday is a diversion as much as a fundraiser, a way of reacting to the crisis through his own self-expression. There’s no football to play but he can get out and run and sweat and be alive. Even now, sport bends towards the light.

“It’s a massive moment of realisation for everyone in the world. The things you would take for granted, I don’t think we will be so casual about any more. All your usual routines and things you would do on a day-to-day basis have been taken away and it’s actually scary to think that could happen so quickly.

“Hopefully everybody does what they can and when restrictions are eased in the coming weeks, people still abide by whatever the new rules turn out to be. We’re all responsible for the health of the country. If we start getting too relaxed with it all, we could have this for far longer than we imagine. Everybody wants things to go back to some sort of normality and I think sport will have a massive role to play in that.”

For information on the Run Against The Sun challenge, check out @DeanRock14 on Twitter.

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