Kids are the same everywhere. They are great craic. I remember visiting Phola Park, a vast squatter camp not far from Soweto in South Africa in the summer of 1995. The conditions were appalling. Families were living in one room structures made from pieces of battered corrugated tin held together with bits of wire and rope.
There was an overwhelming sense of great poverty. Very few had employment of any kind. Health care was basic. There was one water tap and a row of outside latrines. And it was all covered in dust.
But the people had a huge sense of pride in their contribution to the end of apartheid and the election the previous year of Madiba (Mandela), as President of a new free South Africa.
Their living conditions might have been primitive but their hearts were huge and the welcome they gave our small delegation of Shinners was mighty.
They danced and sang and their voices soared in exuberance over the barren landscape around them.
There were kids everywhere. Hundreds running around. They were enthusiastic participants in the songs and dances. They leaped through the air, jumping and gyrating. Most had no shoes or socks and wore old battered jumpers and frayed shorts.
They were curious too.
‘Who are you?’
‘Where are you from?’
‘Ireland? Where’s that?’
Robert McBride our host and guide, who had spent years on death row in an apartheid prison, told us of the ANC’s hopes for the future – new housing, schools and jobs.
He and his comrades were focussed on building a better future for the people of Phola Park and Soweto.
The energy and sense of hope and joy of young people is infectious, whether in South Africa, or west Belfast or Gaza or Dundalk.
Last Monday night that sense of excitement was evident in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dundalk.
RTE was broadcasting the second in a series of programmes entitled ‘The Secret Millionaire’. John Fitzpatrick is a New York based hotelier who was dropped off in Dundalk by the program makers – a place he had never been in before.
His objective was to identify individuals or groups he would give money to, to sustain or enhance their quality of life and project. They had all been told he was a native Irishman returning home to do a documentary on how communities here are responding to the economic crisis.
Last Monday night John hired a large room in the Crowne Plaza. It was packed to overflowing with many of those he had met during his time filming in the county Louth town. He had invited them to come and watch RTE broadcast the programme on a big screen.
And again it was the young people who shone through. They had no inhibitions. Despite living in some of the most disadvantaged social housing estates in the state these young people were bursting with energy. They laughed and joked and slagged each other and John. When someone they knew appeared on screen a huge shout of recognition went up.
In all John handed out almost €40,000 to local projects. Craobh Rua is a Doolargy based youth group which provides after schools activities and homework clubs and works hard to ensure that children stay in education. One young lad, Joel Maguire so impressed John with his singing that he has arranged for him to have singing lessons and he later brought Joel and his mother to Dublin for the Rhianna concert.
The Cuidigh Linn group is based in Muirhevnamor. It provides maintenance workers for elderly people who for a token fee will carry out repairs and decoration work on homes and gardens. The €15,000 John gave this group went toward buying a van. The O Hanlon Park Boxing club received €2,000 with which they were able to buy new kit, including head gear and sparring gloves. The club caters for over 80 ranging in age from 7 to 70.
The programme didn’t shy away from the anti-social and poor housing and health problems of people living in Cox’s Demesne and Muirhevnamor estates.
But what came through was the integrity, humanity and compassion of the mainly voluntary workers who help the young, the disabled and the elderly. I include John Fitzpatrick in this excellent company.
What was also evidence is the very positive effect of relatively small amounts of money when this money is invested in disadvantaged communities. Citizens working at the coal face know how to get value for every cent to improve the lives of our youth, elderly and disabled neighbours.
Secret Millionaire was an inspiring story made all the more relevant and moving because none of those taking part knew what the underlying purpose of the film was.
This blog has had the opportunity to travel to all parts of this island. Everywhere I go I am amazed and humbled and very proud of the numbers of people, whether in the GAA or Conradh na Gaeilge or in the community and voluntary sector, who freely give of their time to help others. Well done to all who took part in ‘The Secret Millionaire’.