Sometimes it is easy to forget just how lucky we are. In Ireland, we are ranked as one of the wealthiest countries in Europe. People largely have access to healthcare, free water, some – be it expensive – housing and plenty of food.
Niall O’Meara had the opportunity to realise just how lucky we are when he travelled with Olive (featured in this section IC 9/01/20) and the Ray of Sunshine Foundation to Kenya to work on their most recent project.
A primary school teacher and Tipperary hurler (you might remember him as the final goalscorer of the All Ireland final 2019), he spoke to The Irish Catholic on his way back from Dublin airport. He had just landed back home fresh from Kenya, the day before he was due to start back training.
“It opened my eyes a bit, I don’t know how to put it into words,” he says. “I’ve never had an experience like it. There was a group of 40 of us there just after finishing up and there were people from all over Ireland; they’re just such nice people who are all there for one reason.”
That reason is to volunteer their time in helping house and educate young Kenyan people in Mombassa.
“I always said I would have liked to do a bit of teaching abroad or a bit of volunteering and Barry Dunne told me he went with Ray of Sunshine. He said Olive was such an infectious person and everyone he met there was so nice, and asked ‘would you be interested in going?’.”
Niall knew Barry, a carpenter, through Tipperary hurling and he put him in touch with OIive, “and look, she had me sold”.
Niall went to Kenya for the first time in 2018. They held a summer camp for the boys and girls from the charity’s earlier projects who are all part of a rescue home for children who were used in the sex trade. They also renovated some of the houses there.
“But this year the project we worked on was a school, the Holy Ghost Father school that was originally built with Fr Martin Keene from Ennis,” he said
“When I first saw how privileged we are here and how lucky we are to have family that look after us and resources and children that are well minded, I just felt so sad coming back. And then I said I would definitely go back again.”
He says he has never seen such poverty. “I think education is the way forward for them but they need the facilities and stuff to get out of it. Building the schools and the catering college means when they’re 17 or 18 then they can go on and work in a trade.
“Over there, tourism is the main earner, so if they can be a chef or they can work in waitressing that’s going to give them a way to help them escape the poverty. Ray of Sunshine is helping give them a level of progress that will help them for their whole lives no just their teenage years or even their childhood.”
While sharing a room in Kenya with Fr John Molloy the parish priest of Toomevara, Niall said they ‘had great chats about faith’. He is currently on a career break, but taught in a Catholic school for a number of years and says he has his own feelings of faith but doesn’t get to practice with weekends often taken up with GAA.
“I would be conscious of it, my brother passed away a number of years ago and I call down to the graveyard every once in a while, but I suppose everyone has their own way,” he says.
“When I spoke to Fr John, we talked about how a lot of people need help. My brother passed away by suicide and so I’ve been doing a bit of work with mental health the last few years, promoting it.”
We saw people dancing on the side of the road and they seemed so liberated and so happy I guess it was good for my own mental health; to see how happy people can be with so little”
He said he has his own few ways of keeping his mental health stable like keeping a gratitude journal and making lists to reduce stress. “I think it’s important to always keep in contact with friends and family, and have a positive conversation every day, a lot of the time people can get dragged down I suppose, once January comes around with the thought of bills and getting back to business.
“This time of year, I would say just be thankful for what you have and if you have a chance, talk to friends a family,” he says.
Niall recounts the taxi drive to the airport in Kenya just before he came home. He was told that the driver would be earning as little as two dollars a day, “that’s incomprehensible over here”.
“It gave me a different perspective”, he says, the fact that he went to university and has a car, “it put things into perspective that I’m lucky I guess.”
“We saw people dancing on the side of the road and they seemed so liberated and so happy I guess it was good for my own mental health; to see how happy people can be with so little.”