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GAA volunteering to keep others safe and fed across Ulster will live on after Covid-19

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Helping hands: Colleen McLoughlin and Shauna Travers are among the Ardoyne
Kickhams foodbank volunteers

Helping hands: Colleen McLoughlin and Shauna Travers are among the Ardoyne Kickhams foodbank volunteers

The Ardoyne Kickhams foodbank volunteers

The Ardoyne Kickhams foodbank volunteers

The Ardoyne Kickhams foodbank volunteers

The Ardoyne Kickhams foodbank volunteers

Helping hands: Colleen McLoughlin and Shauna Travers are among the Ardoyne Kickhams foodbank volunteers

While the news agenda last week was driven by a 22-year-old from Manchester single-handedly forcing the British government into a U-turn over free school meals over summer for children, local communities here were quietly getting on with voluntary work that has sadly become a way of life.

Across Ulster, many GAA clubs have reached out a hand to help those in acute need throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

At first, it was offers of doing shopping and delivering medication to the elderly, but in time has evolved in many cases to helping feed the poverty-stricken. Marcus Rashford may have a global reach, but GAA clubs are able to get the feet on the ground.

And when the pandemic passes, there is no indication that demand for cooked dinners and food parcels will subside as a prolonged recession is in store after a decade of austerity.

Conor Barnes of Ardoyne Kickhams has actually been at the forefront of this work long before Covid-19 made its way across the globe.

After becoming aware of the work of the Community Foodbank, he decided that the Sunday morning sessions where the club coach up to 120 children would be an ideal forum for asking for donations to their cause.

When coronavirus struck, they carried out a leaflet drop on every house in the area and asked for anyone who needed help to call a special telephone line they got up and running. They asked people to continue making their Sunday morning donations.

"We still needed the donations for the foodbank. In fact, we needed more because people's needs became greater, increasing week in and week out," he explained.

"So we decided to go down to the pitch and park the car outside it so that all the members could come along, drop the food into the boot and we could deliver it to the foodbank while keeping our social distance.

"It became clear that one car was not enough. And then two cars weren't enough. So we set up a timetable and if the community foodbank need people to deliver, we are available."

Nichola Bradley of the Community Foodbank outlines just how much need there is out there. The group was initially right across Belfast but as needs have grown, they have had to concentrate their efforts in the north of the city.

"At the minute, there are 400 cooked meals and 450 food parcels delivered each week. We couldn't do that without Conor and his help, as they are the main drivers of it," she said.

"The food all comes from donations. Restaurants in Belfast city centre open up and volunteers go in and work all day to provide the food. For example, Boojum give us 250 free meals a week."

The fact that 850 items are going out per week is both heartening, and a disgraceful failure of government.

"It's 2020; no child should be hungry," said Barnes.

"No person should be hungry. The impact of austerity over the last 12 years has made being poor a fact of life for many among us. There are so many people here going hungry.

"There's the young lad, Marcus Rashford. He gets it. He understands it. He is not doing it for publicity as he went through it.

"In a modern society, supposedly a leading society, where you have children going hungry, that just doesn't sit right. That means that the wealth of resources is top-heavy. It is just point-blank wrong."

That kind of initiative is going on among clubs throughout Ulster. Some have been able to turn it into a cross-community effort that has the added benefit of breaking down barriers in communities.

In Maghera, there is a cross-community group called The Link that operates a foodbank as well as other services such as after-school clubs.

While the Glen club began helping out with deliveries, they found the response from their senior footballers and camogs was keen. Travelling into unionist areas also opened a few eyes on both sides.

Bronagh Mulholland, club vice-chairperson, said: "There were people who we never knew before and they never knew us.

"We were going out to Tobermore, Culnaddy, Upperlands. We encouraged our members to wear their colours, we were representing our club, so nobody was under any doubt who you were or what you were."

Apart from that, the club were determined to tackle another scourge of loneliness. The pandemic, and the need for shielding, threatened to overwhelm the elderly in the community.

"There is a cohort of people here, they have been completely cut off," Mulholland added.

"They weren't people in need, but people in need of social interaction. We started to apply for some funding to see if there was any way we could cater for this group of people.

"So we ended up with 75 people and we would call to them twice a week. Senior footballers and camogs would go around their houses and send them meals."

She continued: "We have people like Francie Donnelly in the club. He has been a lifelong member of the club, and is now 90 years of age. This was a massive year for him with the seniors getting to the final and so on, but the first day that Ciaran McFaul went out to visit him, Francie thought it was Christmas.

"That's exactly the kind of thing we are trying to hit on. To me, that has a massive impact and can have a legacy here.

"The older people are going to remember the work that was done and that they weren't forgotten about in all of this. And for the younger ones, they were so willing to do it."

Despite teaching in the local primary school for the last 26 years, she believes the last period has, "Opened my eyes to the poverty there is in the area that I was not aware of."

And when the pandemic passes, the cause will endure. The work must go on.

"That has now been nurtured. We have that volunteering mindset now, the young ones have seen that people are out there and on their own," she added.

"It's changed lives for a lot of us here. People have seen first-hand how people are living and only good can come out of that element of it."

Belfast Telegraph