Helen’s interest in getting involved in her local community came soon after she married. “Betty Rice was organising these meetings about new houses, so, I was quite interested in that. My husband used to say ‘why do you want to go to these meetings at 18? I was interested really in what was going on in my area and what we were going to have in the future.”
Helen’s interest led to her actively engaging with community projects such as women’s groups, working as an ACE (Action for Community Employment) worker, lunch clubs and summer schemes.
With violence spreading across Belfast, Helen recalls, “Growing up, you didn’t go out of your own area. The likes of the summer schemes we took the young people to the beach during the day and at nights we didn’t go out because it just wouldn’t be safe. Over the years the Troubles got worse and it wasn’t safe for me to work in the area. So I had to give up community work or look for a new group to be involved in.”
Undeterred, Helen pursued her interest in helping children and approached Ballysillan Pensioners Club in north Belfast with the aim of establishing a playgroup.
“When we got involved the hall was falling down around us, we had to get the Department of the Environment to fix it up, it was a challenge”.
The hall continues to be a success and it gained funding in 2000 for a new building for the Ballysillan community. Helen’s passion for providing a centre for children also expanded, “We have our playgroup which is five mornings a week, we have a women’s craft group, a ladies’ and men’s pensioner group, a bowling group and we operate summer schemes. It’s all purely voluntary.”
“I just enjoy working with children. Plus, growing up we didn’t have much of a life during the Troubles, we didn’t get anywhere, we didn’t see anything. So now my youth groups I go to places where they want to go. I can go and enjoy it too.”
Helen reflects on the constant struggle to generate resources in order to sustain community facilities. “The need in the area is very great. We are in the top ten of the Noble Indicator Scale. I’ll always encourage the young people to come in and do some training. Somebody has to be there for the children and young people and it’s nice that I’m able to do that.”
“It’s getting to the stage where it’s all paperwork and meetings. And the likes of these people who are sitting in offices all day, they want to hold meetings in their time which I can’t attend so I feel like I miss out on so much as they are not prepared to come in and assist the volunteers at night.”
For Helen her fondest memories are of the development and continued success of the hall. She hopes to develop this even further to provide for the growing needs of the community. “We own so much land, I would love to see the whole land developed. Next I would love a football pitch for the older boys and girls.”