Saturday, August 3, 2013

John's Story: An Unusual Man in an Unusual Farm!

It isn’t everyday that you meet a couple who are prepared to uproot their young family and move to Libya to teach English for a year…but these are the sorts of extraordinary things that John and Catherine have done throughout their life to expose both themselves and their kids to life outside their farm in the little village of Ballyneety, a 15 minute drive from Limerick City. 

I believe it isn’t chance that allowed our paths to cross.  John’s advertisement on the workaway site asked for volunteers who were prepared to work at an ‘Unusual’ Farm’.  Always on the lookout for something different my curiosity was peaked by the wording of his profile on this site.  Obviously, there was something about our own profiles that also made John pick us to be the English teachers at his summer camp.  Over the two weeks he has given us glimpses into his way of life, snippets of information on his projects but the busy two weeks didn’t really give me a chance to sit down and document his story.  Now as Catherine drives us to the bus station in Limerick City to catch the bus to Dublin (our next destination) she fills in the gaps to the story…

John and Catherine are both retired teachers.  She retired 8 years ago but John took an early retirement to live life a little differently.
During the summer vacations they ran camps across Ireland but lately they concentrate on the summer camps at their farm.  They have an open house policy and never lock any of the doors to the houses on the property, which is unusual even for this part of Ireland.  John’s outlook to life is that if someone steals from him, it is probably because the person who took it needs it more than he does! 

As hosts in the work away program they have already opened their home to volunteers from North and South America, Europe, Australia and Asia.  The volunteers work in the summer camp but also on various projects around the farm of which there is never a shortage.  They work and host visitors from March to October then travel overseas during the Irish winter. 

Last year the summer camp ran for 5 weeks, with students from both Spain and Italy coming over to Ireland to learn English.  It is a hectic time with their property overrun by city kids not used to the space and freedom of the farm to say nothing of the opportunity it provides to interact with horses, rabbits, dogs, pigs and a peacock!  The farm includes a poly-tunnel equipped with all sorts of sporting equipment from table tennis tables, a pool table as well as the volleyball court outside and it is obviously a haven for kids!

Teaching English is however not the only thing they do here.  John provides an allotment to Focus Ireland, a group that helps the homeless as well as those with addiction issues. People in this group visit the farm to do some gardening and get their hands dirty.  They take home the fresh produce from their allotment, a wonderful treat for all of them.

The Limerick Youth Project, which provides a range of opportunities for young people and empowers them to reach their full potential are also welcomed on the farm.  The kids come out to experience farm life and often work in the garden or engage in activities like brushing down the horses, which they find therapeutic.  This has not been without its challenges but John is not afraid to give anyone a chance at life.

John and Catherine are also involved in the Guide Dog program but this is Catherine’s baby.  Each year she works with a guide dog for a year from the age of 6 weeks, providing basic training as well as exposing it to busy traffic and other unusual situations that it might encounter as part of its life as a guide dog.  After that the dog goes into a more formal program before it finds a home with someone who has a need for a guide dog.

John has put together an entire book of projects that various volunteers will eventually construct around the property.  A couple of these projects such as the painted tyres now house flowering plants providing a splash of colour around the property.  Shoes have been recycled to create bird’s nests and various other bits and pieces of completed projects can be found around the farm. 

There are also the more heavy-duty projects that we had discussed previously. Volunteers such as Elias have installed recycled water tanks, which will harvest storm water to be reused around the property.  A partially constructed water wheel lies on its side adjacent to the creek bank.  This was a project that was started by a couple of French volunteers who have visited twice but now needs a bit of fresh blood to complete it.  Once complete it will help refill the irrigation dam that supplies water to the property.  We chat about some of the practicalities and challenges of this project.  

One of John’s pet projects though is the tree house that Elias and many others before him have worked hard to construct.  John is excited about having a tree house on the property but there is quite a bit of work to be done on this yet.  The air soft space at the farm is a popular feature and is often rented out by local teenagers who wish to engage in this sport where you eliminate your opponent by shooting them with non-metallic pellets!

John and Catherine’s travels have taken them all over the world.  When they took their kids out of school to spend a year teaching in Libya their more conservative friends would have been surprised and perhaps shocked.  Their youngest was 5 at the time and the older two teenagers.  Catherine says that it was probably the best education their kids ever got. They went to an International school where they were exposed to children from
more than 50 different countries, many of who were the kids of diplomats based in Libya. Their children were exposed to many of the religious beliefs around the world and celebrated numerous religious festivals with their new friends.  Catherine reflects that the only down side to this is that their kids came back to Ireland atheists!  They have also spent a year teaching in Dubai, and John has also spent shorter periods working in places like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. 

Catherine talks about one of the rewarding projects they did building houses in townships in South Africa.  John and Catherine’s brother-in-law Seoirse were part of a team of workers who joined an Irishman called Niel Mellon, who took hundreds of Irishman to South Africa to build thousands of houses in the townships.  Each volunteer had to raise 5,000 Euros each
to be part of this project and Catherine shares some of the creative ways they did this by organizing poker games, raffles etc.  She also reflects on the generosity of their friends and family that enabled them to raise these funds so both John and Seoirse could be part of this program.  Seoirse went back to South Africa for 6 years to keep working on this project.

I learn on the Internet that the Neil Mellon Township charity grew in a few years to become the largest charity supplier of subsidised housing in South Africa. In 2007 more than 5,000 homes were built by the charity. In November 2008 over 2000 volunteers formed Ireland's biggest ever overseas contingent when they travelled to the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town, where they built 250 new homes over the course of a week. By July 2012 over 18,500 volunteers have worked on his projects and the charity has now built in excess of 20,000 houses and provided homes for over 100,000 South AfricansIt is amazing to hear and read about such projects and to meet people who have been involved in them!

John also built houses in Haiti and they have spent time in many other unusual parts of the world including living out in the forest in the Dominican Republic. 

More recently their travels have taken them to Asia, where they have visited places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  They have engaged in fund raising to help out an Irish nun who runs an orphanage in Thailand and have also visited Myanmar, which is just opening up to foreign travellers now.

It has been heartening to get an insight to the life that John and Catherine lead but we are the bus stop and it’s time to say goodbye.  Catherine thanks us for our teaching, which has received great feedback in the surveys and says we must come back.  We are also thankful for the chance to meet and be exposed to the life of this couple and the difference their farm makes in the lives of so many.  If only more people who retired were willing to think outside the square and be as generous.  

Good luck John and Catherine.  We wish you the very best in your future endeavors…

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