“Her vision took twenty years to come to fruition, but today’s the day.” – Irene’s Story

Her vision took twenty years to come to fruition, but today’s the day.” - Irene, together with UNICEF's Kieran O'Brien and Anne Mulcahy of The Cathal Ryan Trust.UNICEF Ireland’s deputy director Kieran O’Brien reports from Mpendla Safe Park in South Africa.

Irene was born in 1950 is a very different South Africa. She was educated by missionary nuns and married the chief’s son in her early teens. By 20, she’d moved to Johannesburg to work in the mines, leaving behind the beauty, tranquility and poverty of Mount Frere. In apartheid South Africa, life was tough. Irene indicated that she doesn’t like dwelling on the past as it’s too painful. It’s June 16th and the nation is celebrating the national day of the African Child in memory of the brave students who dared to speak up against the regime which continued to imprison them. I pushed her to recall something from this time: “I know what it feels like to watch your own children jumping fences with the police forces pursuing them, I know how it feels to have the heart stopping fear when you hide brave young-people under your bed and the police knock at the door with sniffer dogs.”

Irene and her family returned to Mpendla in 1995 when her husband became chief. It was at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. During this time Irene worked tirelessly to support people suffering the untold pain that HIV/AIDS landed on them. She always had a vision that a community centre could be set up for vulnerable young people to seek support that they couldn’t get at home. She kept the land unoccupied in the hope that one day it could be used to serve the community.

Her vision took twenty years to come to fruition, but today’s the day. She greeted us with a beaming smile and said simply; I can die happy now.

The Cathal Ryan Trust have invested $3.5 million into the safe park programme throughout the Eastern Cape. A safe park is a place where young people have access to trained and accreditied child care workers. In 2015, over 15,000 young people will access the 14 safe parks in the Eastern Cape they will avail of homework clubs, a scholarship programme, an empowerment programme, and computer labs. A new component to the safe park network introduced by the Trust is the alcohol and drugs rehabilitation compenent. Alcohol and drugs present a major challenge for communities like Mpendla and is a significant factor in young people dropping out of school at an early age.

Local men were paid to assist in building the park as a source of income but also in the hope that it will instill a pride in them to protect it.

As Irene reflected further on her life she said; “I know what it feels like to starve, to have fear and anger and what it feels like to find courage and see love and strength in others.” I asked her what advice she has for the young people of the new South Africa and without hesitation she said, to stay in school. Life has been cruel to her but without her education it would have been worse; “no school, means no future. Please, please stay in school.” The reality is that young people cannot stay in school without a supportive environment around them. If all else fails, a safe park can provide this.