As the youngest of five children, Betty recalls fond memories of the Woodvale area of the Shankill in west Belfast as she was growing up. “It was a very community spirited area, I spent lots of time playing and felt as if I had a dozen mums because I had my older sisters and half the street looked after you as well. Generally, I remember long, lazy, sunny days just playing and having a big cosy family around me.”
The Troubles broke out when Betty was at secondary school in Glencairn. “I remember a lot of heartbreak in school at the time. We would have went into school and you would have been comforting somebody whose dad had been shot or lifted or their house had been raided the night before. Education and the school environment were quite disrupted at the time.”
She was actively aware of the danger surrounding herself and her family. “My poor Mum was out trying to gather us up and bring us home. I remember lying in bed at nights as a young teenager listening to bullets cracking like whips, basically it got to the stage where you got to sleep listening to bullets.”
Betty decided to actively support improvements in the community and engaged in community work. “I always wanted to be a social worker. I thought I could help people have better lives in some way. Once I started to do community work I actually preferred that to social work.”
The first community work, Betty engaged with was with children with Down Syndrome, “to be honest I don’t know why, but I just thought I’d like to help with that.”
Betty became involved with community projects on the Shankill, “I had experienced what most people had experienced. I could relate to what people were saying and the lives that they were living and what they were going through.”
She became involved with the Shankill Women’s Centre and believes that during times of great tension and violence, the Women’s Centre’s greatest strength was their flexibility.
“They were able to work with what needed to be done there and then. I remember the Shankill Bombing. There were tears everywhere. People were so traumatised. Basically it was tools down, whatever your job was in the Women’s Centre, you were there to help and support people through that traumatic time.”
One project stands out for Betty on a personal level as one of her greatest success stories, the Small Wonders project – high quality state-of-the-art childcare for parents living and working in the Greater Shankill/Falls area and beyond.
“Our first social economy business project. I think it just sticks out for me because it looked so insurmountable. There was a team of three plus myself. Outside that team, nobody really believed that we could do it. They just thought we were crazy.”
Today, Betty is the Manager of the Shankill Women’s Centre. She explains how she began with the simple aims of making the Centre a more professional institution within the local community.
“I was part of that, bringing in the policies that needed to be brought in and just generally making the whole place more professionalized but trying to keep a balance of a community ethos and a community spirit with it.” On community development she explains, “it’s about a community working together towards the same goals, for the betterment of that community. But there are elements within that, things like, ownership, knowledge and leadership.”
Betty’s success and passion for community work was acknowledged when she was awarded an MBE: “What was really precious for me was that my peers had recognised what I had done. I feel proud, not just for me, I felt that this came from the Women’s Centre, I have an absolutely superb team around me.”