A View from the Fringes

Chatting with Jennifer Carpenter of ‘Hand in Hand’

 On the very outskirt of Oranmore, just as you are about to leave that Co. Galway village to head in the direction of Dublin, there is an area called City Limits.  These days what is left open are the bowling alley and the cinema complex.  Passing both you find yourself faced with a large, featureless and impersonal business park.  And marking a demarcation line between these two groups of buildings you’ll see the entrance to an underground car park.

The door in the side of the car park entrance leads to the office of the West of Ireland children’s charity called Hand in Hand.  Just over a week ago, when I first went up the stairs to that office in order to be introduced to the Development Officer, Jennifer Carpenter, it felt incongruous and just a little strange.  It seemed that I was entering a sort of no-man’s-land: a limbo right on the fringes.  An odd place to have an office, I thought.

Now that I’ve done several hours of work there in the past few days that image of a ‘lost area’ has come to seem quite apt.  For the Hand in Hand charity, despite the truly important work that it does, is one that seems to be greeted with—at best—indifference, by most politicians and indeed by other charities from which it should be able to expect a modicum of moral support, at the very least.  However, children’s cancer, it seems, remains one of those taboo subjects that polite people don’t want to talk about.  If it weren’t for the astonishing efforts of the fundraisers and volunteers the programme would be literally unsustainable and a great many families would be the worse off for that; and as someone completely new to this field I have been more than taken aback at how generous these fundraisers are.  Generous and ingenious, because their ideas are as varied as they themselves.

The other thing that keeps the organisation viable, as far as I can see, is Ms. Carpenter.

I’ve mentioned that Jennifer is the Development Officer.  In actuality that is a meaningless title, since she is responsible for so much more.  In effect she has been running a one woman show here for the past five years and I find myself wondering how she does it.

When I meet her she is behind a desk: she is in her late forties, she’s slim, funny and friendly.   When she stands up it is obvious that her frame carries within it the contained energy of one of the greyhounds that she loves to race so much.

As it turns out, it’s the greyhounds that are responsible for this native Londoner ending up in Ireland.  Well, that and her partner Steve.  “Actually,” she says, “he’s to blame for the greyhounds. “  So, same difference; I do like a romantic tale.

 “Although I was born in London, myself and my family had travelled around a fair bit:  Hertfordshire, Chester, Hampshire.

“Eventually I found myself working in London as the medical secretary to a consultant paediatrician.  I was lucky in that I had the same boss for sixteen years.  He was a great guy and made it so much more than just a job. I found myself becoming involved in teaching and working hands-on with the families.”

Working hands-on.  I’m beginning to see how she found her way to her present position, because she certainly comes across as a ‘people’s person.’ Well, some people anyway; but more on that later.

“We had been holidaying here for several years, travelling to all the major greyhound meetings.  I had fallen completely in love with the country by this time.  Then my mum died and I found that with my family grown it was now or never. 

“We had found this terrific old house. It was completely run down but came with a fair bit of land.  We started fixing it up and never looked back, really.  And in the meantime I had seen an advertisement for Hand in Hand on the internet.  This was in 2008.  I went for it and here I am, five years on.”

It is soon obvious that Jennifer’s work here, as in London, has become more than just a job that she turns up for.  The visitor can see right away that the office is very much a working office, with her one assistant of the past year—Yulia– typing away at one of the two desks.  It’s Yulia who stays to answer the phone and talk to anyone who might drop in when the other part of Jennifer’s work takes her out to the fundraisers or to the all-important task of meeting with the children who have been diagnosed with cancer and also, of course, with their parents.

With all of this, plus fielding such interviews from the press as might come up, producing a newsletter and trying to keep a website up-to-date it’s obvious that there must sometimes be too few hours in some days.  And I can’t help but notice that, as Jennifer talks of her occasional frustration, the East End slips back into her accent.

Showing that she has the admirable trait of not taking herself too seriously she says:  “You mind what you say.  I’ve worked dead hard to be posh, I’ll have you know.”

Well, at the risk of sounding as if I’ve wandered off the set of the Oprah Winfrey Show, I find that for me someone getting in touch with their anger and their passion just engenders trust in them.  In fact I would imagine that if you are in this line of work and don’t lose the head occasionally it may just be time to look for another job.


The Ongoing Struggle for Funds

 I ask her what frustrates her most and as she throws her head back and looks up at the ceiling I get the feeling that it isn’t just one thing, that’s for sure.

“One of the most frustrating things is the lack of acknowledgement regarding what we try to accomplish.  It sometimes seems that when it is children’s cancer that you are dealing with then you just hit a brick wall in everything.  Promises are made and sometimes even agreements are signed and settled on.  Yet in the end there seems to be no sense of guilt when they are reneged on. “

I’m curious about specific examples and for some reason I’m not overly surprised when she answers:

“There was one agreement actually signed on with the HSE West for €450,000.  We had been left €300,000 from the sale of a children’s home.  There was an understanding that the money would come to us, the remaining sum to have been made up by them.  That was simply reneged on at the time.  Then again the HSE had a huge deficit at that point.  Maybe it just went to plug a few holes.

“We have been let down by people who should know better.  Look at the Irish Cancer Society, for example.  We incur costs of €150,000 a year; and yet last year Irish Cancer gave us €7,000 out of the sum of €20 million that it had received.  It has become simply an endless struggle for us to provide the services that we do to the families that we support.”

As far as I understand it, the Cancer Society makes a blanket claim to offer all services—but none are paediatric.  None are aimed at children with cancer.  Like I said, she’s a ‘people’s person’ but there are a few people that she’s more than a little bit out of patience with.

There are of course honourable exceptions, but some replies to the organisation appear to have been written by soulless robots rather than humans.  Perhaps they were.  When it comes to certain politicians I’m finding it harder and harder to tell the difference.

Nor is Jennifer Carpenter too enamoured of those wise people who decide what National Lottery Funds go where.  Certainly, looking at the graph and some of the statistics that she points out to me it is hard to discern any kind of logic to the manner in which the funds are dispersed.  Although one thing is for sure:  Cystic Fibrosis has done very well indeed compared to some.  That is not a begrudging comment; it’s just stating a fact.

Suffice to say that out of the money given to Cancer, none has gone specifically to Cancer in Children.  By now I’m beginning to see a weary inevitability to what I’m being shown.  However, she stresses that one of the problems is that most organisations that are in the position of giving out money want to see a one-off project; and it is with one-off projects that Hand in Hand never seems to quite fit in.

“It just keeps coming back to the same thing,” she says.  “With trying to provide meals, laundry, household cleaning—the largest service used—and also with providing childcare for siblings in order to assist parents who have to travel the distance to Dublin…well, we just don’t have the resources.  We just don’t have the funds.

“Before you go, though, I want to acknowledge very sincerely and gratefully the work being done by all the volunteers and fundraisers.  I also want to let anyone who gives in the form of public donations know that every cent we get is used to effect.   Thanks to every one of them”.

I’m glad that Jennifer has her greyhounds.  This is definitely a job where you would have to compartmentalise.  I know that after only a few hours in her company I feel a deep anger at the unjust way that things are being run in this country.  Especially when we have politicians who are blind to people in desperation—and yet who feel no embarrassment at increasing the price of security to look after their own important selves.

Hand in Hand may be struggling at the moment; but I have no doubt that with the likes of Jennifer Carpenter out there, plugging away on the fringes, it intends to be around for a while yet.