28 Nov 2021

Adventure of a lifetime to Africa for Portlaoise College students

Students, teachers and the bus driver from Portlaoise College went on the college’s sixth annual humanitarian trip to Gambia in Western Africa in late January.

Sixteen students, four were teachers and the bus driver/janitor made up the 21 who went on the unforgettable expedition to Birkama. The main goal was to provide electricity to the Jasima Yiriwa Nursery school.

The mission was such huge successes that over 500 homes in the community were also able to connect to the power grid.
The group also visited the local Birkama hospital donating many supplies from the 400kg of essentials that they brought on the trip. Included was a blood pressure monitoring machine.

Keith McClearn is deputy principal at Portlaoise College.

“It’s shocking when you land. You’ve seen pictures, clips on the television and heard things about the poverty but to actually be there and not seeing it on a screen is totally different. You see cows walking along the roads and kids running after the bus asking for sweets which they call minties. The landscape is baron and you can see the poverty. There are no supermarkets just little shops which are just sheds really. The meat markets are full of carcasses which are surrounded by flies. They just keep throwing salt onto the meat.

“One of our teachers Fintan Walsh bought a blood pressure machine off his own back for €50 to take along for the hospital. The doctor was overwhelmed to receive it. He told us that if they had it the day before it could have saved a life.

“They reassured us that it will help to save hundreds, if not thousands of lives in the future. The hospital is fairly open to the elements and covered in sand. The labour ward is a prefab with over 600 births per month and is the biggest in labour ward in Gambia.” he said.

Student Illan Dunne described the experience.

“I was amazed to see block banks. The wages are so low that even teachers only earn around €50 per month. Building a home can be a lifetime project. In your twenties you might manage to get your foundations done, then in your thirties you might manage to get your walls built by buying a block a month or so from the block bank then be lucky to be finished and move into your home in your forties.

“The children’s favourite thing was taking pictures and looking at themselves. They wouldn’t have mirrors at home so it could be the first time that many kids got to see their own images. We carried out a lot of work for the school and when the children seen what we had done they were so excited and grateful that it was overwhelming for us.”

Also speaking on behalf of the group was fifth year student Deirdre Cadogan.

“When we went to the nursery the first morning a huge group of kids came running out to greet us. It was amazing. They sang and danced for us and took us by the hands, full of joy and hope and always smiling. It’s heartbreaking to see the poverty in reality and we all experienced instant bonds with the children.

“The 16 of us got talking about all the hard work that we put in to get here, like all the different fundraisers throughout the year including standing at roundabouts in the cold asking motorists for money was all well worth it. We would do it all again and more to get the chance to return again.

“When we spoke to the college’ students about our experiences at assembly last Tuesday many regretted that they hadn’t applied to go. Our advice to them is if you don’t want to regret it, just apply.” She said.

During the trip the Laois team painted the school inside and out, updated and repaired kitchen and classroom furniture, installed presses and worktops, repainted the hopscotch and play area, donated three laptops and three overhead projectors and much other educational materials to the school.

The contingent organised a sports day for the children on the last day. However they were shocked when most of the community turned up and turned the day into a massive celebration of song, dance and sport in honour of the 21wonders.

More than €24,000 was raised for the trip through a number of fundraising activities carried out by the college and its students throughout the previous 12 months. In total, €4,000 was raised for the electrification project.

Staff and students at Portlaoise College wish to thank everyone who donated and helped in any way to support the Gambia project 2018.

The students were: Kamil Kowerczuk, Dylan Dunne Connolly, Jamie O'Callaghan, Illan Dunne, Norbert Jez, Iara Paz, Gyula Torok, Deirdre Cadogan, Aoife O’Neill, Magdalena Czerwik, Amber Dalton, James Maher, Caoimhe Skehan, Debbie Whelan, Emilly Aguiar and David McEvoy.

They were accompanied by deputy principal Keith McClearn and teachers Amanda Cripps, Fintan Walsh, Ciara Kennedy and bus driver/janitor Jimmy Palmer.

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