How North Inner City Pallet Collectors Became Volunteers in North Africa

Declan Keenan sips coffee from a small Styrofoam cup, and reassures the kids around him. “Ballymun’ll be busier next week lads,” he says.

“Sure, I’m going home after this for a nap, then a Pizza Max, curry base,”says 15-year-old Lee Grace.

Sat in the boot of a silver estate, hands tucked into the pockets of his black, padded jacket, 17-year-old Eddie Towell speaks up.

“Not too cold now, though, Decko,” he says.

It’s 11:43am on Sunday morning, a slow day so far. Once-crisp amber sycamore leaves are clumped against the curb of the car park of St Mary’s Secondary School in Glasnevin.

Almost four hours earlier, the lads and Keenan, a project worker with the after-school club Just ASK had unloaded piles of DVDs and figurines, jigsaws and books, onto a propped-up plastic table. They spread hoodies and shirts and shoes on the cold tarmac below.

Then they added the final touch, to tell those who wandered by what they are all about.

Beside plastic hot dogs and hamburgers, a battered, handwritten cardboard sign reads “Fundraising for North Inner City to North Africa.”

The Skills

Curry base on a pizza? “Yea, curry base on a pizza. Unreal,” says Grace, now sat next to Towell on the car’s boot, behind the table of items donated by parents of kids who attend Just ASK each weekday.

From across the car park, an old woman approaches in a full-length red fur coat. “How much is that one?” she says, right hand gripping a porcelain statue, left resting on a tartan wheelie bag.

“Everything’s a euro,” says Grace.

She moves off, further along the table. Keenan sets his cup down on the hood of the car.

Just ASK, first located in the Dublin Christian Mission on Chancery Street, moved to its current premises on Dominick Street three years ago, he says.

With a core group of eight volunteers its philosophy is simple. “We want to remain a non-targeted group, so children aren’t being referred to us because of their behaviour but because they choose to come to us,” says Keenan.

He has two weeks left to help these lads raise funds for their annual trip to Morocco in late October.

In the past, they might have been out pallet-gathering.

But three years back, Keenan gathered together some of the older lads from the Smithfield area who attend Just ASK each week: the pallet-collectors-in-chief.

He made them an offer: they could stay home and heap pallet for the annual infernos or they could try make a difference to a community abroad.

“I said to them, ‘If you can organise 20 or 30 people to walk to Cabra, climb up a building that a grown man wouldn’t get up, nick pallets, drag them back to the city centre … I want all that skill, all that organisation, all that forward thinking, determination, ability put into fundraising with us and then I want that skill when we go out to Morocco,” says Keenan.

They agreed, spurring Keenan to make the Morocco trip a tradition.

In two weeks, another group is due to fly to Agadir, travelling up into the Atlas Mountains in northern Morocco to stay with couple Mohammad and Fatima, to lend a hand there, however they’re able.

Grace and Towell – both from Smithfield – have been going to the after-school club for eight months and six years, respectively.

“It’s very important,” says Towell. “It keeps everybody happy and off the streets.”

“Stops Halloween trouble. A lot of the businesses can keep their pallet,” says Grace.

Before the trip, they have to sell whatever they can to cover their costs while they’re out there. That takes a Trojan effort from the community: Facebook posts, leaflets, donations, phone calls – all aimed at getting these lads to North Africa.

Leading the charge is Keenan himself.

“He’s some man for one man,” says Towell.

In Like Water

Previously employed as a care worker with the health board, now the Health Service Executive, Keenan set off without a map. “When I first got involved in inner-city youth work I’d more questions than answers,” he says.

This was in 1989. “It was mad in those days,” he says. “Kids were wild. They used to come into the place like water. They’d come in and go through everything.”

Children from around Smithfield, Cabra and beyond would come to the after-school club that Keenan worked with back then.

Some would stay and become regulars in this safe space away from distraction. Some came and went, disappearing for two or three weeks at a time.

“You wouldn’t see them and then when they came back their behaviour would be worse again,” he says.

There had to be a different way, Keenan thought – which he how he moved to build Just ASK, with its focus on a voluntary ethos.

Before the children settle into their homework, they get a hot meal served by Keenan and his crew each weekday.

“But we stress to them, and to their parents, that we’re not school, we’re not there to reinforce homework,” says Keenan. “We’re there to support them.”

Some will always prefer to kick a ball rather than to knuckle down at Just ASK. Keenan won’t force them either way. “If they really don’t want to do homework one day I’m not going to push them into it,” he says.

With Halloween fast approaching, and Morocco on the horizon, Keenan – or “Decko” as the lads call him – hasn’t stopped of late.

Next weekend, there’s a fundraising disco in the Dominick Street flats. After that, they have planned a car boot sale at Trinity Comprehensive School. Then, they have scheduled a cake sale in Greek Street.

For each annual trip, Keenan’s rubric remains the same: the lads have to raise their own airfare through donations and fundraising.

Back at the table, the old woman decides on some glassware and hands over a few euro, as Towell helps load up her wheelie bag.

A starling flits overhead. Grace keeps watch across the car park.

Far From Home 

Curry base? “Unreal,” says Grace. “D’ya know that McDonald’s curry sauce you get? It’s the same as that. Delish.”

Sunday morning moves slowly into Sunday afternoon as Keenan takes several large, black plastic bags from the car’s boot, and gets ready to gather up unsold items.

“This stuff’ll fly out in Ballymun,” he says.

Concrete school car parks are part of the journey, too, before sun-baked paths through Moroccan mountain trails.

It’s a far cry from home life. “It’s so culturally different. You smell Morocco, you taste Morocco, your senses are overloaded,” says Keenan.

“I mean you see it on telly and all but it’s unreal,” says Towell, who went last year.

This will be Grace’s first time. “Sun tan and working with the kids out there? Bonus,” he laughs. “I’m not dressing up as a lobster.”

While there, the group decide with the community what work they should do. Last year, it was a new floor for the community centre.

At first, they thought it would cost 2,000 Moroccan dirhams, roughly €200. The group ripped up the old floor, happy to dip into their €600 budget.

“But then this guy came out waving his arms,” said Keenan. He told them he had made a terrible mistake. It wasn’t 2,000 dirhams, it was €2,000.

So the lads took Decko aside. They promised to fundraise the extra €1,400 when they returned to Dublin. He lent them the money to complete the works.

Keenan now kneels on the tarmac and places shoes into plastic bags. He looks tired.

What’s left of the day is his only time off before it’s back to Just ASK tomorrow for more after-school activities.

But, as he sees it, he has it easier than many of the parents who make a €10 contribution each week, or help bag pack in supermarkets, whose kids stop by for homework. Or a chat. Or a kick of the football.

“For some families even that’s a stretch,” says Keenan. “Some families just don’t have it. But no kid will be turned away.”

The silver car has been reloaded with donations. The cardboard sign still sits on the propped-up plastic table as Towell and Grace help Keenan with the last of it.

I catch Grace’s eye. “Curry base?”

Curry base,” comes his stock response. “Unreal.”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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