Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Ex-prisoners turning their lives around in Ferrybank

Kenny Colfer displays one of U-Casadh's awards

By Robert McNamara
The place is bustling as ‘Changing Ireland’ comes through the door unannounced and seeking a story. We immediately get the impression that there are plenty here.
The warm vibe is instantly striking and we are greeted heartily by everyone who notices our arrival - a constant theme of our recent visits to LDC supported projects.
There’s an air of confidence about the place and while everyone is busy, there’s a distinct lack of stress and a steely concentration about the men carrying out the painting, woodwork and other jobs around the place.

Their craft goods are lined up proudly on the worktops and there’s a fair amount of jesting going on – always a sign of a happy workplace.
Welcome to the U-Casadh – which means ‘u-turn’ - a project in Ferrybank on the fringes of Waterford city, along the border with County Kilkenny. Here, former prisoners over the age of 24 are given the opportunity to build confidence, self-esteem and receive training with the ultimate goal of getting a job.
To facilitate this, the men take part in courses and make craft goods at U-Casadh’s base to sell locally. They also have a gym to work out in.

Two of these men, Kevin Colfer (40), of Lisduggan, and Kenny Murphy (31), of Newport Square, are at the opposite ends of the spectrum at U-Casadh in terms of the time they’ve spent here, yet both exude the same positive attitude and determination to work.
Kevin has been here for four years and his achievements can be measured not only in the certificates he has received but also in his everyday life.
“Being here at U-Casadh means I’m in a routine. Boredom is a big problem with a lot of lads. I used to have a really bad habit of being up all night and staying in bed all day.
“Nowadays I’m up at eight, I’m here for nine and I work until three or four in the day. There is always something to do here like labouring or craft work. It really keeps me ticking over. It gives me an ego-boost because I love working with my hands and seeing the things that I do and make.
“I want to pass onto the lads coming through what I’ve learned.”
One of the participants who will benefit from Kevin’s experience is Kenny who is new to U-Casadh.
“There’s good banter here, everyone gets on. People don’t look down their noses at you. They know you’ve had problems but they get on with you anyway.”

“It gives me the motivation to get out of bed and I’ve been clean for a year. It’s helped me with my problems with drink and drugs and it’s given me a few ideas about what I want to do with my life.
“They’ve also helped me with housing and social welfare. I’ve gotten four certs in the eight months which is more than I’ve got in the last 20 years.”

Katherine Peacock is operations coordinator at U-Casadh: “There was a need to engage with offenders over the age of 24 in the area. The idea is that the lads who have been here a long time will teach others to do what they’ve done. We want them to take ownership of every aspect of the business from finding their market to selling the goods.
“We try to capture what the men want to do with their lives and see how we can help them to do that.”
U-Casadh offers a three-tiered programme. Firstly, it addresses ex-prisoners’ basic needs upon release such as applications for medical cards, housing and social welfare.
Secondly, it provides training and participants engage in courses as cooking, life-skills, behavioural skills, anger management, addiction, crime awareness and literacy programmes.
The third component is to support the participants to find long-term employment outside the project or set up social enterprises within.

Waterford Area Partnership (WAP) designed the initial project structure for U-Casadh and hired the first worker, Stephen Plunkett, now the project’s CEO.
In 2011, U-Casadh’s success was acknowledged on a nationwide scale when the project won a prestigious Arthur Guinness Fund Award. The folks at Guinness were so impressed with the participants’ craftwork that they gave the contract for producing their national awards to U-Casadh.
The participants also sold their wares at Waterford’s ‘Winterval’ festival to much success and acclaim.
“Waterford Area Partnership set this up, they were instrumental, they’ve gotten it to this point. We are now out on our own and we are registering as a charity,” says Katherine.
“We are trying to expand it into a long-term business and engage people long term.”
Kevin is currently doing a FETAC course on how to run a business to complement his FETAC level 6 train-the-trainer, his lorry licence, his safe pass and manual-handling cert.
Kenny regularly uses the skills he has garnered from a FETAC level 5 home maintenance and cooking course and is hoping to get on a CE scheme which would keep him at U-Casadh for another two years. He also keeps fit with regular visits to U-Casadh’s gym for boxing training.
To this day, through LCDP funding, WAP continues to work in partnership with U-Casadh.

The project was set-up by WAP in 2008. The Stephen’s Green Trust provided funding for the first three years, with support also forthcoming from the Probation Service, Department of Social Protection, Waterford Institute of Technology and County Kilkenny Leader Partnership (CKLP). The Brothers of Charity supply the premises on a long-term lease.
Today, U-Casadh claims to be the “leading ex-prisoner, re-integration programme in the South East”. Community workers, students and volunteers interested in an in-depth view of the project’s background and aims should check out: www.action-project.com/?page_id=352
Meanwhile, U-Casadh’s CEO Stephen Plunkett can be contacted on: 086 7908741. E: stephen@ucasadh.ie. W: http://www.ucasadh.ie/

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