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Spirit of NI Awards: ‘School was my second home for 46 years, it’s hard to see it brought to a sudden end’

As we honour our 2019 education winner, time to get your 2021 nominations in for the Sunday Life Spirit of NI Awards

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INSPIRATIONAL: Mary on stage with Isabel Jennings, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students at sponsors Queen’s, and Coronation Street stars Charlie Lawson and Kerri Quinn

INSPIRATIONAL: Mary on stage with Isabel Jennings, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students at sponsors Queen’s, and Coronation Street stars Charlie Lawson and Kerri Quinn

INSPIRATIONAL: Mary on stage with Isabel Jennings, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students at sponsors Queen’s, and Coronation Street stars Charlie Lawson and Kerri Quinn

More than 40 years of selfless work on behalf of others was brought to a sudden halt for our Spirit of Education winner Mary Leonard when Covid-19 struck last March.

Over a year on and the retired schoolteacher can’t see how the career hub she ran for parents of the children she taught in west Belfast will ever get back up and running.

It has been a struggle for this dedicated teacher who had to self-isolate for most of the year after being used to spending her days surrounded by people at her training classes in Twinbook.

When Mary (68) started her teaching career it wasn’t just the children in her care she ended up educating — but their parents too.

The Belfast mum-of-two worked mostly as a primary one teacher for her entire career in the former St Luke’s Primary in west Belfast which is now Holy Evangelists Primary following amalgamation with St Mark’s.

Dedicated to educating the children of the community to be the best they could, during her time as a teacher from 1972 until she retired in 2011, she also ran a successful parent centre.

After retiring from teaching she helped to establish a busy new hub to carry on her good work with parents in Twinbrook and the wider Glen area.

Hundreds have retrained for new careers or enjoyed learning health and cookery skills, with many going on to university.

Mary’s passion and dedication to supporting local adults is appreciated throughout the area.

Her nomination for our award in 2019 summed up what she means to local people: “Mary has given her life to the Twinbrook community and for this we are so grateful, she is adored by our parents and grandparents and we would love her to be recognised for all her dedication and passion for our families.”

Mary, who has one son Matthew (35) and a daughter Katie (33), is now worried that restrictions mean the hub will not be up and running again anytime soon.

She says: “Covid really did impact us. When the kids were taken out of school in March 2020 we had to stop meeting as well.

“I have been stuck at home on my own and it is only recently that I have started to go out again to the local shops as my daughter was dropping my shopping off.

“I was at the hub four mornings a week and I really miss it and the parents and grandparents. I don’t see me ever going back to it now as I am 68 and don’t know when parents will be allowed back in school.

“School has been my second home for 46 years, 37 of those as a teacher and the last 10 working with the parents, so it has been very hard to see that all brought to a sudden end.”

While she laments the loss of her centre, she still feels very fortunate to have been given the chance to continue her work with parents after she retired.

Mary recalls: “At the start I saw it as a challenge as I had never worked with adults before and it soon became a passion.

“It has been wonderful to see all the adults who left school with no qualifications being given a second chance. We’ve many who have gone on to university and many who secured great jobs.

“Others come to do our essential skills course.”

Such is her dedication that Mary, who ran the centre with the help of Shauna Doyle, even retrained as a cookery tutor so that she could train parents on cooking healthy meals.

She started teaching in St Luke’s when it was first opened back in 1972 and was thrilled to see the new school building open last March just before Covid closed it down.

She adds: “I really feel for children and young people who have missed out on so much.

“I don’t know when the hub might be able to return and at the minute I would be fit to go back but who knows for the future.”

As we launch this year’s awards, Spirit of Education sponsor, Harbinson Mulholland, an award-winning accountancy firm who founded the NI Family Business Forum, has urged people to nominate.

Clare McCarrison from the company understands the important role education and our educators play in our children’s lives, especially after the events of the past year.

She said: “As a mum of two young children aged nine and seven, like a lot of other parents, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table most days trying my best to home school and ensure we did some regular exercise, whilst trying to schedule work commitments in as well.

“It was very challenging at times especially when we couldn’t reach out to other family members to help due to Covid restrictions during lockdown, but thankfully the firm and clients were very flexible and understanding.

“I always knew teaching was a real vocation but now I have even more respect for our local education sector, our teachers, educators and for everything that they do, many having worked tirelessly over the last year to help both children and parents navigate our way physically and mentally, over this difficult time throughout the pandemic”.



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