'I couldn't even look people in the eye, now I feel like a social butterfly'- single mum on how she got her confidence back
An inspirational single mother who "wrote herself off" after falling pregnant as a teen is now a community leader who is determined to help others achieve their goals.
Avril Hannifin (32) says she struggled throughout school and after she became pregnant at 18 with her daughter Dionne, her confidence plummeted to the point where she could barely look people in the eye.
Avril, who is from Clondalkin in Dublin, told Independent.ie: "I hated secondary school to be honest, I had a lot of challenges with learning, I wasn't able to apply myself to the curriculum and I just lost interest in it.
"When I was 18 I got pregnant with Dionne, I actually got my CAO results on the same day that I took that positive pregnancy test.
"I couldn't believe that I was pregnant, I was shocked and disappointed with myself, I knew my mam wanted better for me.
"From there I just wrote myself off and thought education wasn't going to work for me, I thought I should focus on being a mum, I stuck with it and gave my daughter the best life I could."
After splitting up with Dionne's father when her daughter was one, Avril balanced being a single mother and working part-time as a sales assistant.
It was a few years later when she decided she wanted to focus on her own education.
"As Dionne got older I could see how much she enjoyed school and how excited she was to learn everything, it made me excited for her and it made me want to learn a bit more," Avril said.
Avril studied in her local community development centre and in 2014 they put her in touch with An Cosán - a Tallaght-based community education service for people from disadvantaged areas.
Avril spent three years studying part-time for a degree in Leadership and Community Development.
She said: "I felt An Cosán would be a lot better suited than other facilities for my needs as a lone parent.
"It's very flexible, it's a lot more interactive and collaborative, with group work, there's also holistic supports and counselling available.
"Even just the friendships and support you get from everyone in there makes all the difference, there's a lot of love in there.
"I was so inspired by other community leaders and after learning more about issues like equality and feminism, I thought why couldn't I do something in that area?
"I knew I was capable of being a leader and I wanted my daughter to see somebody she knew in a leadership position, I decided I would learn and do my best for my community.
During her studies she had an internship with a social enterprise development company in Ballyfermot, she then worked as an administrator in Clondalkin Travellers Development Group and, after graduating last year, she is now working on An Cosán's Digital Pathways team and says education has given her and her daughter a much brighter future.
"It really has changed life for me and Dionne, I'm so much happier now and my daughter sees the difference in me, I've more time and I'm able to help her with her homework.
"Years ago I couldn't even look people in the eye, now I feel like a social butterfly - I enjoy talking to people and having diverse conversations.
"Dionne is the light of my life, she inspires me to want to do better for myself and for her, not just in education but in life in general," Avril said.
An Cosán was founded 1986 years ago by Children's Minister Katherine Zappone and her late wife Dr Ann Louise Gilligan.
The organisation's CEO Liz Waters told Independent.ie: "They had this dream to create a centre of learning, leadership and enterprise to really help women to exit poverty.
"They had a wonderful vision of running it from their own home, they had two classrooms and a big kitchen to help women engage in education, while their children were cared for in the community centre.
"It was a real visionary movement, education is the only real fast track out of poverty.
"They worked with the women and set up a committee to learn how to respond to people's needs.
Due to increased demand they have since relocated to a centre in Jobstown, west Tallaght and has expanded through their Virtual Community College.
An Cosán marked International Women's Day this week by highlighting the next phase of the development plan, the #OneGenerationSolution - their research shows that if you promote a young single mum to degree level she will earn 66pc more than her counterparts and she and her family will exit poverty forever.
The organisation says that a mother's education level impacts on their child's socio-economic wellbeing, the ease at which they transition into primary school, whether they will complete their Leaving Cert and their expectations of attending college.
Ms Waters said: "A few weeks ago, the Economic and Social Research Institute brought into clear evidence what we in An Cosán have known always - lone parents suffer the highest on the index of deprivation in Ireland.
"That is an absolute damming shame on all of us, we know what is wrong - 84pc of lone parents are women, in communities like Tallaght over 30pc of children are being reared in lone parent families, we know that 14pc of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are not in education, not in employment and not in any sort of training.
"That is what is wrong, we have the answer - investing with a long-term vision in the education of lone-parents."
She says the organisation has "huge plans for the future" but they don't have the funding.
She said: "At An Cosán and through our Virtual Community College, we have provided community education to over 17,000 people.
"Now that we are a national social enterprise providing community education right across the country the demand for our services has increased dramatically but the funding has not increased in any way to meet this demand.
"We call on partners, funders, philanthropists and Government to prioritise a mothers education when developing public policies and funding strategies.”
Avril is encouraging anyone who has lost confidence in themselves to consider returning to education.
"I would tell anyone that education is lifelong, don't give up on yourself, secondary school isn't for everyone but you can find something that would suit your abilities.
"With all of the digital tools available, such as apps that can help people who struggled with traditional educational.
"Everyone has the capability to learn, you just need to find the way that works for you.
"The darkest nights produce the brightest stars - so even though you face adversity you do become resilient, you just need a little bit of help."
- For more information about An Cosán please visit here