The roots of Ballydehob Community Playschool and Crèche lie deep in community and long in local history. The building was built as a schoolhouse in 1892 on Greenmount Road steps from the rock on which Anna Parnell, sister of Charles Stewart Parnell, famously rallied over 4000 Land League supporters.
It remained a school for almost a century. Many parents and grandparents who drop their little cherubs to the warm and welcome glow of the playschool and crèche wistfully remember when they attended the primary school when it was a more character-building institute of yore.
As was custom there were separate play areas for boys and girls and the outdoor toilets were cold and dank. It is said that the children often shared their four chilly classrooms, each heated with its own pot-bellied stove, with small four-legged creatures.
Older students were delighted to be given responsibilities toward the upkeep of the building. ‘You got into fifth or sixth class and you got fire lighting duty. I once remember me and another guy being sent into a room with hurleys to kill a mouse,’ reminisces one past student. Another recalls that there was an axe left out for the boys to use in chopping kindling.
When the modern Scoil Bhríde National School was built nearby in 1985 the original building languished as storage space for years until local playgroup leaders and parents took on the gargantuan task of turning the old ruin into a new playschool.
Cearma Levis and Tina O’Mahony had been operating a playgroup out of a loaned room in Scoil Bhríde when they began to feel the group needed its own space to better meet the growing needs of the community. In 2001 they enlisted the help of parents to start the long arduous process of making that happen.
Cearma, Tina, and parent Deborah Harris spent many evenings pouring over NDP (National Development Plan) grant applications and working to meet the often changing list of requirements. With a crew of parents that helped at every step they had embarked on what would be a two year application process to get government funding in place. They also managed to get permission from the Church to rent the old schoolhouse, and permissions from the County Council to start the re-build.
In that time they became a limited company and were required to make guarantees to the NDP that the new playschool would stay in business until 2011 at least.
Deborah says that the whole undertaking was daunting. ‘It felt like a huge risk that a group of mothers were entering into this kind of arrangement with the government. They could have asked for the money back if things didn’t work out. But at the same time the school needed their space back and the village needed a playschool.’
Braving the risk has ultimately paid off. The playschool opened its doors to some fanfare in 2003 and has gone from strength to strength since.
Today the Ballydehob Community Playgroup and Crèche is a thriving state-of-the art purpose-built facility for children from three months to 12 years of age. According to playschool administrator Hannah Vaughan, ‘We welcome all children and are happy to work with and support them, whatever needs they may have.’
The playschool employs eight full-time people who continuously increase their knowledge in childcare by taking courses that are above and beyond requirement. Each caregiver has been trained in child protection, speech and language support for under fives, and promoting positive behaviour. They are currently learning LAMH, a sign language used with children experiencing language delays and useful with babies before they learn to speak.
‘We are all very excited to get started on learning LAMH. This is sign language which can not only be used to work with children who have speech delay, Down Syndrome or are non-verbal but is also great to help small children communicate before their words have developed,’ says Hannah.
Playschool coordinator Michelle Keohane has earned a BA Honours in Early Childhood Studies and will complete her Masters in Play Therapy early next year. She and her staff provide a fun programme designed to encourage social, physical, emotional, intellectual, and language development that help prepare pre-schoolers for primary school.
Crèche leader Fionnuala O’Meara holds a FETAC level 6 in childcare and the happy babies and toddlers in her charge clearly benefit from her positive and patient nature.
She and her team provide a clean and stimulating atmosphere encouraging play and instilling early good practices such as clean up time through song and play.
Hannah says she feels grateful to those who set such a high standard at the start and is extremely proud to work with the people involved in the playschool today. ‘No one working here is doing it for the money,’ says Vaughan. ‘I’m very proud to be part of a team of amazing women who work incredibly hard to ensure that the children of this community practice the skills they need for life, in a fun, warm environment which is their home away from home’
The Ballydehob Community Playschool and Crèche is indeed homey and couldn’t be more different from the school of previous generations. The two rooms are warm and airy. The walls are bright and busily adorned with colourful artwork made by the children. Singing and laughing and inquisitive little voices echo throughout the building five days a week.
The facility is open Monday through Friday from 8am to 6pm with services that include Breakfast Club, Crèche, Playschool, Afterschool and camps during holidays.
It is a not for profit organisation funded mostly through State grants. It is endorsed and inspected by the state agency TUSLA.
Names are being taken for next year’s enrolment. Enquiries can be made to Hannah Vaughan at the Ballydehob Community Playschool and Crèche on 028-37771.