From recreating a refugee camp in the wilds of Kildare to participating in a climate ‘summit’ knee deep in the Irish Sea... Tony Devlin shares his experiences as a Trócaire Volunteer over the past two years
When, in 2015, I thought about giving some of my free time to Volunteering, I was immediately attracted to Trócaire, whose mandate is not only to support the most vulnerable people in the developing world, but also to raise awareness of injustice and global poverty at home.
In the two years since I’ve received my basic training I’ve had the opportunity to do so many different things, things which are often challenging, but always rewarding.
My story as a Trócaire Volunteer begins in the cold and rain of November. I’m part of the team conducting our annual Climate Challenge weekend. In a carefully planned ‘refugee experience’, a cohort of Transition Year students from schools around the country, divided into ‘family’ groups, must navigate the rain-lashed open spaces and tangled undergrowth of Castletown demesne in Co. Kildare.
A river crossing, a transit through a long stretch of rough terrain, an enforced halt to build a shelter from the elements and a search for a supply of drinkable water have all been set up as tough exercises for the simulation participants. I’m at an intricately constructed rope maze, my role that of a grim, unwelcoming Border Guard, turning back anyone who can’t navigate the maze.
Later I’m back at the tented Refugee Reception Centre, in the guise of an Aid Worker, handing out water bottles and food as the final dramas of document and medical inspections are played out and a privileged few are allowed into the shelter of the tents.
Afterwards all retire to the warm basement of Castletown House, where clothes can be changed and a debrief conducted, to talk about the experience, and how it connects to Trócaire’s humanitarian work in locations as far apart as Kenya and Honduras.
Before the year is out, there are several more activities. I especially enjoy a morning photo-shoot on Dollymount Strand, where, to the bemusement of the walkers along the Bull Wall six of us carry a table and chairs out into the water and hold a mock UN Climate Conference with the tide washing around our freezing feet, raising champagne flutes filled with sea water in ironic salute to the prevailing governmental double-think on this issue.
The New Year brings a change of direction with the approach of the Lenten program of School and Mass speaking. This is the trigger for more training and my introduction to the hugely rewarding business of telling Primary School children about Trócaire’s work.
If you want to grow young again, if you’re tired of the cynicism and grim negativity that surrounds us these days then the remedy is simple: spend a morning in a Primary School talking to the kids. They are incorrigibly optimistic, always ready for fun, with short attention spans, a penchant for mischief, but a boundless curiosity and an openness to hearing and seeing new things. Most importantly, they have a simple goodness and a naïve idealism which tired old adults can only envy.
Speaking at Masses is another new challenge, and it’s inspiring to be able to make linkages to the message of the Gospel and to share with Mass-goers the truth that all are our brothers and sisters to whom we owe a duty of solidarity and support.
During the Summer, I’m at the Trócaire tent at Africa Day at Farmleigh, where we offer visitors information, storytelling and drum-making sessions.
And then it’s Autumn 2016 and the whole cycle begins again.
There’s another Climate Challenge, this time focusing on the plight of communities in low-lying and flood prone areas; there are demonstrations and vigils, and petitions, lobbying our politicians to work harder at trying to help solve the root causes of mass migration and the refugee crisis, and pushing for fossil fuel divestment here at home.
Speaking in Secondary Schools is a new and invigorating experience for me and I also get to do some research work at Trócaire HQ in Maynooth. There’s no shortage of variety in the opportunities I continue to be offered to increase my experience and capability and that keeps everything fresh and interesting.
How to sum up? Well, it’s been a revelation really. An opportunity to give practical support to causes I feel strongly about and to spend time with like-minded and committed people working for justice in ways which are life-affirming and positive.
There are so many good things I could say about Trócaire and about the people who work there, but two particular aspects are important to me about how they handle volunteers.
First, they always train you and second, they always thank you. Neither of these simple practices is a ‘given’ in today’s world, but together they bind the volunteer into a real sense of belonging.