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A chance to shine - the Rising Tide initiative


Book-mad Holly Foley. Photo: David Conachy

Book-mad Holly Foley. Photo: David Conachy

Book-mad Holly Foley. Photo: David Conachy

Not so long ago, a school in Dublin was buzzing with unbridled excitement. At times, you'd think it was taking part in a high-energy television series about American teenage drama students. However, this was happening in Finglas - think Glee with a Dublin accent.

This all came about when the Young Americans, comprising 40 globetrotting students, descended on Colaiste Eoin. Their mission? "To promote understanding and goodwill, through music, dance, academic education and cultural interaction." The Young Americans empower children of every colour and from every conceivable background to become the person they really, really want to be," says their spokesman.

The link between the school in Finglas and the Young Americans is Holly Foley, a passionate 31 year old, who is currently in the throes of a PhD at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). What makes this interesting is the fact that she is the first person in her family to experience tertiary education. In fact, her mother Deborah Matthews, like so many of her generation, had to leave school at 14.

But even so, Deborah knew instinctively that education brings freedom. So when one day, she heard Gay Byrne extolling the virtues of reading to small children, she began reading to her daughter, Holly, who was then just 10 weeks old. So, Holly's fate was irrevocably sealed by a book - and a very sound mum. (Deborah has since earned a master's in health education).

Holly's love of the written word led her to spend all her First Communion money on books.

When she was 13, she won £100 in an essay competition, and she spent all that money not on clothes, music or make-up, but on books. In Fifth Year, she joined her Crumlin school's TCD access programme. The purpose was to "encourage young adults and ethnic minority students who come from socio-economic groups under-represented in higher education, to go to university."

Holly was invited to 'shadow' a law student at the college. "Until then, university wouldn't have been anywhere near my radar," she says, "but the access programme changed all that."

Following a successful Leaving Certificate, she, began a one-year foundation course at TCD, along with 24 other pupils from Deis (delivering equality of opportunity in schools) schemes. "Most of us on the course were first generation college-goers," says Holly. "It definitely did give me the confidence I needed to move on."

Holly then did a degree in European studies and learned Russian. She spent a year in Moscow, while living in a student hostel. "It was fascinating and so international," she enthuses. "We even had people from a circus in Dagestan staying at the hostel. However, surviving the winter was another challenge."

Following that degree, Holly then went on to do a master's at UCD in European and economic public affairs. That then led her back to TCD, where currently, she is doing a PhD at the children's research centre. She is now married to David Hesnan; they have a five-year-old daughter called Daisy, who, not surprisingly, loves books.

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In February of this year, Holly saw an advertisement for a project coordinator for a new initiative called the Rising Tide. She was so sure this was the perfect fit for her, she dashed off a letter, straight from the heart, to Debbie Deegan. And she got the coveted job.

Debbie founded To Children with Love in 1998, an organisation which teaches life skills to young people in Russia, so they can achieve a brighter future. The programme has been so successful, many of those children, have gone on to become well-grounded, successful professionals.

Over the years, Debbie was encouraged to do something similar for Irish children. So this indomitable campaigner came up with the idea for the Rising Tide project. "The aim," says Holly, "is to raise the aspirations of pupils. We want to help them to increase their belief in themselves, so they can follow a pathway that really interests them. We're here to support them in that."

Colaiste Eoin in Finglas was chosen as the pilot project, because the staff, led by principal Paula O'Brien, was fully supportive of the initiative. Already, evidence of its existence is all over the school. The noticeboard is crammed with photographs of enraptured pupils dancing, acting and having loads of fun with the Young Americans. "Some terribly shy children actually got up on that stage and sang their hearts out," says Holly.

There are several other projects on the go, including a boot camp for budding entrepreneurs, who are expected to give a portion of their profits back to the school. A gardening project is teaching new skills, while giving the pupils a sense of pride in their environment. The club room is defined by muddy, sturdy boots and gardening tools.

Four pupils were sponsored to attend the Connemara Maths Academy at Kylemore Abbey for a week during the summer, where they learned through discovery, creativity and adventure. "They had a fantastic time," says Holly, "so different from anything they might have experienced at school." They, along with many of the other pupils, are now enjoying the eBay Study Hub, a fantastic multimedia facility at the school, sponsored by the American multinational.

But maths boffins and computer whizzes are not the only ones being catered for here. The intention is that any child with hopes and aspirations, and the willingness to work hard, will be helped to achieve their fullest potential.

"If someone wants to be a plumber, then we will help them be the best plumber possible," Holly explains. "If someone else wants to be a cardiac surgeon, then we will help them along that pathway." She says while all 160 children at the school will benefit from the various programmes, 12 to 16 pupils who have a "genuine drive to succeed" will be awarded scholarships. A huge effort will be put into supporting them to achieve their highest potential, be it academic, artistic, or technical.

One of the most heart-warming features of this project is the fact that much of the sponsorship money comes from KSG, a leading catering service provider, which is based in Finglas. "Lots of people who work for them live in this area," says Holly. "We're really proud of that."

For more information, see tochildrenwithlove.ie or email Holly Foley at holly@tochildrenwithlove.ie

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