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On the margins of society

Thirty years ago, Sinead decided to take action for what she believed in and joined a special Traveller Conference of SVP. Today, she is still fighting against discrimination. With support such as yours, her Conference has made so much progress for this community.

Why did you join St. Vincent de Paul?

I moved to the south of Ireland about 30 years ago. At that time there was a large encampment of the Traveller community in the same area. I was shocked by the horrendous living conditions they were in. I felt particularly bad for the children, their situation was dreadful. I could not believe they were not able to go to school. Having come from a humble background myself, I thought – If my children can go to school, then why aren’t these children allowed.

So, I got involved with the Society who happened to be running a Traveller-focused Conference in the area. You couldn’t have got a better group than SVP, in this area in particular. They’re extremely non-judgemental, and that is so important to me. Their priority at the time was to get better accommodation for the local Travellers. But I always believed in the value of education. So, we fought to get the children into school. I’m talking about 1988 now, not 1888! And it took quite a long time.

What has your Conference achieved over the years?

“When I started working with Traveller children, many of them were on the streets begging. The lads were in the dumps collecting scrap to make a living. Things still aren’t perfect, but now all those children go to school in some form or other.”

It started with the Government making provision for special classes. I actually got a job working in one at my local school. Then I realised that this was all wrong. The children had to be washed and they had to be this and that, and they were always segregated. That’s not the way to educate people. So, I made it my lifetime mission to improve education for the Traveller community.

We started with classes for the mothers in a local resource centre. We taught cookery, flower arranging and personal development. This allowed us build relationships of trust and empowered the women to want something more for their family. Then we were allowed work with the children. We helped to keep them in school, and we took them on outings into the city.

It has taken a long time, battling discrimination and many underlying factors, but we have made substantial progress. We are now in a position where some children are continuing as far as their Leaving Cert. Not the first set of kids we worked with, but their children.

What sort of difference has this made for Traveller families?

Well, if we take one girl we have helped, Sarah, as an example. Sarah was very young when I first met her, living in dreadful conditions. Then her mother died, and she was left floating around, sleeping on sofas, until she got married.

She was only 18 when she married a settled lad. She actually got married from my house because she had no other house to go from. They started their own business, and everything went well for them. But then the castle started to crumble. Her husband had problems with addiction, the business collapsed, and she left.

Sarah came back to our Conference for support. She really wanted to go back to education and make sure her children stayed in school. She was a very determined woman. So, she did her Leaving Cert and we gave her support for the books and to pay for childcare. Now she’s back working full-time. She’s independent and all of her children are in school.

How do you keep going, working in such a demanding Conference?

I have to say it’s down to my husband and family support. My children grew up in the same area the Conference works and they were mocked in school for what their mother did. But they always understood and supported me.

I would also say my Christian faith. I am not a devout Catholic and SVP helps everyone regardless of religion. But I find some of the simplest messages most powerful. Such as ‘If you do it for the least of my brethren, you do it for me’. I just feel like you’re only passing through life, so you should do whatever good you can.

Based on a true story from a family helped by SVP. Names and some details have been changed for confidentiality.

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