Community 'Warke'

Jeanette Warke is a community worker who has fought for social projects for the Unionist community for 35 years. She is involved in the Cathedral Youth Group, the Shared City Initiative and ILEX to name but a few organisations. Jeanette received an MBE in 1998 for her services to young people in Londonderry. She lives in the Newbuildings area of Londonderry. Here she speaks to the Sentinel's Ruairi McLaren

Q. How did you first get started in community work?

A. I got my first introduction into community work in September 1972. My husband David had been approached to start a youth group at what was a very hectic time. My husband ran the group every Friday between 7 and 10 at the cathedral and in the first week 13 young people were there but numbers steadily increased as the weeks progressed. I went in to lend a hand and they needed a female worker there because there were young girls coming to the club. I was only going to help out for a few weeks but that was 35 years ago.

I don't see my work as a job, I love it and it's particularly rewarding now because I'm onto the third generation of people who have been in the group and their mothers and grandmothers are thanking me and my late husband for our help. It is hard work though, there are ups and downs but the rewards you reap overcome all of that.

Q. Can you describe how community work has helped the community?

A. I got involved in the Shared City Initiative in 1999 and I'm still involved on a part-time basis.

When my husband David died in 2003 I had to look at my life and what was important to me.

At the time the SSI was set up the was little happening in our community and little infrastructure. People were not availing of the funding that was there and there was an attitude of "they (nationalists) get it all."

There was a very serious need for community projects but we were not just aimed at community groups but at getting jobs, and classes and courses in things like IT and arts and crafts.

The courses played an important part in building the self-esteem of the community. We have graduation ceremonies and people are rightfully very proud of their achievements.

Q. What sort of classes do you run?

A. As well as IT, arts and crafts and business-relateed course we have Irish history classes, which is something we never received in the British school system, it was all English history.

The history classes have a cross-community element and help to create respect and understanding in both communities. It's an ongoing thing and we have produced three books and brochures and a book called "We too have suffered" which was about women's experience of the troubles.

During the process of putting that book together we found the experiences of women in both communities were very similar and that had a tremendous effect in bringing people together.

I see that project as pilot for the kind of good work that can be done in Northern Ireland.

Q. Is the cross-community element to the projects important?

A. I think cross-community work is very important for our city especially among young people.

We set up a project called Sport Unites that brought together youngsters from St Johnston, Curryneirin and the Fountain and we took them, wearing their Rangers and Celtic football shirts, over to Scotland to see matches at Ibrox and Parkhead.

That built up a great sense of comradeship in the children and on the boat back we were surrounded by older fans wearing Celtic shirts and it was great fun.

Recently we have had young people from our youth group and the Longtower group going round and interviewing people who live in the Fountain and Bishop Street about their experiences and the history of the area, their local history.

Q. What was your personal experience of the exodus to the east bank?

A. We had to leave our home in Mountjoy street in the cityside basically because we were intimidated out of our home.

It was a sad time because I had so many friends, Catholic and Protestant, that I didn't want to go and they didn't want me to leave either.

There was a community there, neighbours shared meals, we shared a washing machine and I knew that would be lost forever.

I had grown up in Bellview and when I was young I never heard my mother or father talking about Catholics in a bad way.

We were taught respect especially respect for clergy. We were taught to salute priests and we did.

None of our mothers worked so there more time to take care of the children and give them good values. We had everything in the street, a dressmaker, hairdresser, a nurse and a lady had a piano we could go and play.

Everything was community-based and there was a great community spirit.

Q. How are community relations in the city now?

A. I think community relations in the city are excellent now. A lot of that is because of programmes that have taken place.

We are talking about our cultures and sharing our cultures. I try to take time to listen to other people's opinions, I may disagree but I am respectful of other's views.

We had an event recently in the Millenium Forum and that is a place that many people from the Waterside have never been to.

The was an older lady there for the first time and she said afterwards "Isn't it a pity that we can't bottle up the atmosphere here tonight and sprinkle it all over Derry, it would be a different place.

We live in a great city, a friendly city and people should be proud. People say the river divides us but that's our own fault and it's a beautiful landmark.

Q. What did you do for St Patrick's day?

A. We had our own celebration for the second year running, last year was in St Columb's and this year we had it at Clondermott School.

We had Irish dancing, Scottish dancing and instrument classes and about 300 people came. There was no sign of flags and we had a ball. Unfortunately the attack on the family in the Fountain on St Patrick's day left them deeply traumatised and was a set back. We don't want to lose young families from the Fountain and fortunately that family is not going to leave.

Q. Do you think Protestant people still feel unsafe in the city centre?

A. Protestant young people, especially those form the Fountain do feel under threat in the city centre. They don't go to the shops really and if they want to go to the cinema or bowling we have to arrange transportation for them, that then involves bringing staff along and costs a lot of money but it'simportant because otherwise young people feel hemmed in and are not communicating with other young people.

Q. What are your feelings about CCTV and the peace wall in the Fountain?

A. I think the introduction of CCTV cut down on the number of attacks at the interface. Their presence is definately a deterrent.

There's never been anyone lifted due to the cameras but if it makes people feel safer that's the main thing.

The peace wall definately makes people feel more secure. People are still living with cages on their windows and it's dangerous, you can't even really go and hang you washing out in your back garden in those houses.

It's a shame because there is a lot of green space there and we don't have much of that in the Fountain but young people can't use the area because it's too dangerous.

Q. What are your future plans for community development in the Fountain?

A. I'm delighted to say that we have a piece of land earmarked for a community garden, it will be designed by the community, they will choose the plants and there will be a bench people can sit out on in the summer.

It will greatly enhance the area and inter-generational relations.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive have had great input in the garden and refurbishing houses in the estate. Renovating houses is important to make them attractive for people.

At the moment the population in the Fountain is stable, we would welcome more young families but there is a rich and vibrant community and I think the youth club is second to none.

Q. What is the development of the Ebrington site going to do for the Waterside area?

A. The Ebrington site contains 13 listed buildings and will have a commercial centre and an art gallery, things that are badly needed.

We hope that in the open area we can hold open-air concerts and markets. It will be a great boost for the area and the footbridge between the site and the city will create a new and important link between the Waterside and Cityside and will encourage people to cross from both sides.

Q. Is unemployment an issue in the communities you work in?

A. There are a lot of young people unemployed in the area and when they get jobs they don't always stay in them for a variety of reasons.

We work closely with Job Assist and have had great successes.

I would like to see better training facilities and young people getting trained in trades like painting and decorating and plumbing.

We also need well paid jobs, companies are paying wages that are far too low and not valuing their staff.

Paying people 3 an hour is not on, everyone should be paid the same regardless of their age.

Q. Have you managed to secure funding for the projects into the future?

Funding for the Shared City initiative and the Cathedral Youth Group ends in March and we're hoping for further funding from the Department of Social Development.

Our finances are good though, we have never been in the red and I have faith things will work out and anyway I would rather get on with the work rather than worry about funding.