‘MORE A CONSCRIPT THAN A VOLUNTEER’

Violet Gill reminisced with Mary de Paor about her three decades of voluntary involvement with St Michael's House.

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Violet Gill has only given up her direct involvement with St Michael’s House in the last few years—you might say she’s finally taken ‘voluntary retirement [would redundancy be better?]’. She served the organisation as a volunteer from 1963, on the Board of Management for nearly thirty years, and as chairman of the board. She was also a member of the Board of Cheeverstown House in its early days. In 1995 her long service to the Irish learning disability community was acknowledged with the award of Honorary Life Membership of NAMHI.

Violet Gill was ‘conscripted’ into the work of St Michael’s House through her life-long friend Irene Richardson, with whom she also worked in the St John’s Ambulance brigade. It was 1963, and Irene had recently been hired, at a wage of £8 per week, to manage the special school in the large house on Grosvenor Road, Rathgar, which St Michael’s House had bought when it outgrew its rooms on Northbrook Road. Irene phoned Violet one morning: ‘Look, could you get over here? I have 30 children and I need help to make soup and sandwiches for them.’ Violet answered the summons, but she admits that her first reaction was not very auspicious. ‘I saw all those little things who looked exactly alike—they were all children with Down Syndrome, and they looked identical to me then. I thought, “I can’t cope with this at all.” Irene shrugged and said, “Grand, I’ll see you next week then.”‘

And that’s how it started. Violet kept on helping at Grosvenor Road for 23 years, in her ‘spare time’. The children soon became personalities to her and she got to know their parents, and their problems. St Michael’s was one of the first services, if not the first, to offer day-care facilities, and they had a long waiting list. Most of the work was done on a voluntary basis. Dublin Corporation provided sandwiches and milk for the children, but when the volunteers saw the contents of the sandwiches—a sort of a bright pink, jelly-sort of meat—they decided it wasn’t suitable. Irene did battle and eventually extracted the equivalent money from the Corporation (6d per child per day, perhaps). They went to the market and got friendly with the local butcher—and they were able to provide nourishing hot meals for the children. A rota of volunteers prepared the meals. They made a great team and before long they were also organising entertainments, catering for the opening of a new unit …..

The St Michael’s House Toy, developed in the 1970s, was one of Violet’s pet projects. A range of sturdy educational toys were bought—that meant more fundraising, of course—and the service was much in demand from families who could borrow a succession of toys for their young children with special needs. By the 1990s, most Irish households could provide their own toys and there was no longer the same need for the toy library here—so Violet sensibly suggested that the toys should be sent where such a need was still evident. The entire toy stock was boxed up and transported to Bulgaria, as an adjunct to NAMHI’s Adams Fund and the work of the new day services being developed by the Bulgarian Parents and Friends groups.

A project to compile the history of Dublin’s St Michael’s House is now underway. Violet hopes that many of the important stories have not already been lost. ‘It’s very late because so few of the people who remember St Michael’s, and were there, at the beginning are still around.’

VOLUNTEERISM, THEN AND NOW

Violet acknowledges that services have had to adapt to dramatic changes over the past decade. Many of them are big business now—’Where we were talking about pounds in my day at St Michael’s, now you’re talking about millions.’ She recognises the necessity for the funding and for the professionalism of services now, but she adds a slight caution: ‘Once you lose the voluntary element, you lose a lot of the human face, you know. I think that is terribly important. In the early days we knew the parents, and we knew their problems. They would come to the school in the morning with the children, and if they had a problem they had the chance to talk about it…. I don’t think that exists now to the same extent—the personal contact. Now, everybody has a mobile phone…’

It was a different time in the 1960s, when Violet Gill became involved with the early St Michael’s House. In those days of the ‘marriage bar’, there was no question of her keeping her job after her marriage, and she says that with one child she had time ‘to do interesting things’—and she has certainly done so!

Reassuringly, Violet believes that the ‘urge to volunteer’ is transmitted from generation to generation. She cites the examples of the Chernobyl Children’s charities, technicians who help in rescue programmes after a natural disaster, and the health and development aid workers in Africa. She believes that volunteerism continues to appear wherever there is great need: ‘I think voluntary help is alive and well—no doubt about that.’

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