Mags Gargan visits Don Bosco Care, a residential care, aftercare and outreach service for young people in Dublin
The homelessness crisis in Dublin has come to the fore in most people’s minds in the last few weeks, especially since the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie, who died sleeping rough near Leinster House. As a result many of the organisations who are doing fantastic work in this area are being highlighted in the media and having their voices heard.
However, there is a group working away quietly in north Dublin, unknown to most people, which offers vital support to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and essentially keeps them from living on the streets.
For 36 years, the Salesian order in Ireland, originally founded by St John (Don) Bosco in 1859, has offered a home to troubled teenagers who can no longer stay with their families, and residential aftercare for young people leaving the care system.
The young people supported by Don Bosco Care are aged 12-22. They come from the most challenging backgrounds and are referred by the social services. These children grow up in homes where violence, addiction, physical and emotional abuses and neglect are commonplace. Many of them struggle to fit into a foster care environment. They have problems trusting adults. They don’t know how to form relationships. When they leave the care system at 18, they find themselves on their own and maybe sleeping on the streets.
The service was founded in 1978 by two Salesian priests, Fr Val Collier and Fr Vincent Diffley (deceased) in response to newspaper reports that young people were ending up on the streets at a very young age.
“When we opened we thought we would be out of business in 10 years – that things would have improved,” says Fr Val. “The 1980s were very depressing times. The recession meant it was very hard for young people to get jobs and people were suffering a lot. We didn’t think that we would experience the breakdown in family life that has happened since. A lot of kids cannot be cared for at home by their own families. They are suffering different kinds of abuse and have to be placed in foster care or residential care. So the work has expanded.”
From that first house donated by the Dublin archdiocese in 1978, Don Bosco Care now operates seven houses across north Dublin, and offers an activity club for ex-residents to stay in touch and socialise.
Darren (20) came to Don Bosco Care when he left the care system at 17.
“It was great living with Don Bosco Care. The support there was incredible. I got on really well with the staff and they gave really good support, and I am still in contact with people through the activity club. We might do some gardening or other work that needs done to the houses, or we might go bowling and have a bit of lunch, or go to the cinema, if the funding is there. I enjoy it. It keeps me on the straight and narrow.”
Darren plays football with Don Bosco Care FC every week and was part of the winning team of the TOPS Tournament this year. “I’ve made friends playing on the football team and it’s good to get to know them as well. It has stabilised me,” he says.
Darren hopes to start an education course or jobs scheme in the New Year and some of the Don Bosco staff are looking into options for him.
“At Don Bosco Care we place a very big emphasis on education,” says CEO Brian Hogan. “I think the difference between Don Bosco Care and other organisations is that we are very ambitious for the young people we work with. While we accept them completely at where they are at, we set the bar very high for them. Young people in care have the same right to education as any other young person, and we should be aspiring for them in the same way our parents aspired for us.
“My own strong belief is that, if a young person is gainfully engaged in the daylight hours, in full time education or a job, they have a much better chance of avoiding drug use and crime.”
The service works with young people with mental health issues, addiction issues and learning disabilities. Fr Val says most of them have experienced a lot of trauma and abuse in their lives, and it is a challenge to build up their self-esteem and to help them to move on and build new relationships.
“We have had quite a lot of success over the years with people settling down, getting jobs, getting married and having their own families. A number of young people have gone on to further education and progressed very well with their lives.”
Fr Val says the service has married the Don Bosco ethos with a modern therapeutic approach. “If you were to use one word, it is gentleness. Don Bosco had a very gentle approach to working with young people.”
This emotional and practical support does not stop when the young people become independent, with Don Bosco Care supporting 50 young men and women out in the community as an outreach service.
“They might get themselves into a dispute with a neighbour or a landlord and, if we are not there to intervene, it can be a road to homelessness,” Brian says. “Often it is only a case of one supportive adult arriving and saying take it easy – if you’re short for the rent this week, let’s see if we can find that for you somewhere.”
Jamie (23) was 15 when he came to Don Bosco Care from foster care. “I stayed with Don Bosco until I was 18, but then I went straight into aftercare,” he says.
“For me, because I was dyslexic, they helped me to learn to read and write. I had anger problems too and they helped me with that. I come to the activity club now and the football. At the moment I have a four-month-old baby with my girlfriend, and the club helps me get out and make friends, and you can talk about what is going on in your life. When I have stress I keep it inside, but when I go to the football I can talk to the staff and release some of that stress,” Jamie says.
“It has changed me. My mother passed away about three years ago, and I went down the wrong road, but the club built me back up and helped me with my anger issues. I don’t want to be on the wrong road in life. I haven’t been in trouble with the law at all and I want to keep it that way. It’s like a family. I didn’t have a family or someone to talk to. But I know it is only a matter of a phone call to one of the staff.”
Brian says that there is also a value in the length of time that Don Bosco Care has been around. “Even in the last year I have seen guys in their 30s and 40s coming in looking for Val. It goes back to having one solid adult in their lives.”
Brian went to a Salesian secondary school and volunteered with Don Bosco Care for 10 years before becoming their first CEO this year. “It is a 24 hour, 365 day service,” Brian says. “We have about 49 people working with us and 26 volunteers. There is a lot of goodwill out there and people offering their skills to help in any way they can.”
The service was originally fully funded by the Government and operated quietly without a public profile. However, since 2007, State funding has been cut by €400,000, leaving a shortfall of €20,000-€30,000 per month.
The Salesians had to accept that it was time to ask the public for help. They appointed a board of directors, a new communications officer and have held fundraising drives throughout the year.
“For years Fr Val and his colleagues have worked away quietly and it’s not in their nature to promote what they do. But there came a time when we had to raise our profile because the State is no longer funding the services. We have to look to people who might be interested in helping us out,” Brian says.
Like all family homes across Ireland, the Don Bosco houses are gearing up for Christmas. Decorations are up, Santa lists are made and the food for the Christmas dinner has been ordered.
“A lot of care and organisation goes into making Christmas a special time for the younger kids. Santa comes round with gifts and we have a Christmas party. There will also be a Christmas dinner in one of the houses for former residents who might be on their own,” Fr Val says.
“It is a tough time for the kids to be away from family, but a family member might come to visit, or they could go home for a night.”
Fr Val says building a relationship with young people is very important and the staff aims to give them a sense of family or community.
“The people we care for are some of the most deprived young people in the country,” Fr Val says. “They have had a very negative experience in the family home. The people who should have cared for them, their parents, have let them down, maybe without knowing it, and trust has gone.
“When they come into us, they are hurt and broken. Their lives are in turmoil and they don’t know where to turn. So we have a huge task in rebuilding their lives, welcoming them, making them feel at home, making sure they feel safe and secure, that the carers around them are giving them a positive message all the time.
“Our ethos is about giving positive messages to young people because it changes their lives when they open up and tell you their story. They feel comfortable, wanted, accepted and cared for. They begin to feel better about themselves, maybe return to school and they perform better. We have seen young people transform their lives through education, and to perform way beyond our wildest dreams. That is the job satisfaction for us, seeing these young people mature, grow and flower.”
To volunteer, donate or find out more about Don Bosco Care see www.donboscocare.ie or telephone 01-833 6009 or write to Don Bosco Care, 12 Clontarf Road, Clontarf, Dublin 3.