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How the St Vincent de Paul helped save a family torn apart by husband's gambling


Store manager Jackie O'Connell with Graham Clifford in St Vincent de Paul, Church road, Douglas, Cork. Photo: Photo: Daragh McSweeney

Store manager Jackie O'Connell with Graham Clifford in St Vincent de Paul, Church road, Douglas, Cork. Photo: Photo: Daragh McSweeney

Store manager Jackie O'Connell with Graham Clifford in St Vincent de Paul, Church road, Douglas, Cork. Photo: Photo: Daragh McSweeney

'There it is, number 15, my God we loved that place," says Sinead as she hands me the picture of a modest semi-detached London home.

In the sitting room of her rented apartment in Cork, the mother of two tearfully explains how her estranged husband's gambling addiction saw her family's fortunes spiral downwards. She tells me that only for the help of the St Vincent de Paul (SVP), her family would be out on the street.

"We bought the house in London in 2004 and life was good. I'd just given birth to our eldest boy, my husband had a well-paid job with British Rail and, before I took maternity leave, I'd worked as a teacher's assistant in a nearby school," she tells me.

But six months after her son was born, Sinead noticed unusual activity in the couple's joint bank account.

"One day a bank statement came which said £450 (€570) had been paid to a betting company. I thought it must have been a mistake. I asked my husband about it. He laughed it off saying it was for a syndicate, that they'd backed a horse which didn't win and that we'd actually only lost £100 (€126). I believed him."

In 2008, by the time a second son was born, her husband had become aloof and aggressive and Sinead suffered from post-natal depression.

"I couldn't understand what was happening," she says. "This dream life had turned into a nightmare. Then one morning I went down to the local shopping centre to buy some food and when I tried to get money out from the cash machine a message appeared saying 'insufficient funds'."

Her husband, who kept a firm grip on the family purse strings, had a separate account unknown to Sinead and had run up huge gambling debts. His addiction forced the family to sell their home, with creditors receiving the majority of the proceeds.

"It destroyed us. The fighting was constant. In 2011, we split and I returned to Cork with the two boys," says Sinead.

Today she works part-time as a secretary and after rent and basic bills are paid each month, she says she has no more than €375 to live on.

"So with that money I have to buy shopping for a month, pay for school trips, clothing, asthma medicine for my youngest and, with Christmas coming now, a few toys. I felt I was drowning until one day I picked up the phone to the SVP," she says. The charity was able to give Sinead some monetary assistance and listen to her growing list of worries.

"They do amazing work and the quality of the stuff in their shops can be excellent. Now that I have a bit of breathing space I want to give back to them and tell all my friends to visit their shops and give what they can," she says.

At one such shop in Douglas, outside Cork city, I walk into a hive of activity as passers-by drop off bundles of clothes, kitchen ware, shoes and books, while shoppers search for Christmas gifts.

Aer Lingus stewardess Jilli Tynan drops off some walkers and a baby mat on her way to work. "My kids don't need these now, they're too old for them. I usually drop off clothes to the shop here, those of us who are lucky enough to have something to give should give," she says.

And one of the managers here, Jackie O'Connell, admits the volume of people passing through the door of the shop has risen steadily in recent months. "There's no doubt it's been busier. Many of those who come in now are people with good jobs and incomes but for whom the pressure of mounting bills is a worry," she said.

The statistics back up her observations. "In 2008 we were giving out €25m a year to people in need; last year it was €42m," explains Brendan Hennessy, Social Justice Officer with the SVP. He adds: "The need for help has grown across the board. During the recession, a quarter of all those who came looking for assistance were approaching us for the first time."

And he says the likes of teachers, nurses, gardai and others in public sector jobs are being caught in the net of need.

He says: "So many people in State jobs are on low pay. Many of those on the family income supplement, for example (given to those in low-paid positions), are working in State jobs themselves and come to us for help.

"We often visit houses where there's a nice car sitting in the driveway but because the family can't afford to tax or insure the vehicle, it sits there constantly. From the outside everything looks rosy but behind the front door the reality is different."

The Douglas outlet is just one of 180 SVP shops throughout the county; their combined sales in 2013 came to €20.45m.

"I picked up some great Christmas presents in the SVP shop in town last week at great prices. I think I spent €30 for everything," Sinead tells me, adding: "For the first time in years I know we'll have a good Christmas. Because of the help of SVP I can look forward in my life now - rather than constantly looking backwards."

How to donate

1. Go to www.svp.ie or give locally.

2. By cheque. To SVP, PO Box 1234, Dublin 1, made payable to Society of St Vincent de Paul National

Council or direct to a regional office; addresses can be found on www.svp.ie.

3. Pay direct to Bank of Ireland, Phibsborough, Dublin 7 to St Vincent De Paul Council of Ireland.

A/C Number: 80005599. Sort Code: 90-06-23

4. Call the SVP National Office on 01 838 6990.

In addition to making donations directly, there is an array of options to support the SVP at www.svp.ie/ appeal. These include a virtual gift sore www.svp.ie/giftstore.

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