needy children in South Africa are now enjoying the benefits of warm and smart clothing thanks to a phenomenal response to an appeal for unwanted school uniforms throughout the Larne borough.
The amazing story of public generosity, along with plenty of determination and battling against red tape, began with news of the plan to amalgamate St Comgall’s College in Larne, St MacNissi’s College, Garron Tower and St Aloysius High School, Cushendall.
Carnlough woman Catherine Mulvenna was approached by a number of parents asking if their children’s uniforms would be of any use in Africa, where Catherine’s sister Mary McAteer - who is originally from Glenarm - has been working as a missionary with the Sisters of the Assumption since 1984.
Sister Mary’s response was that the uniforms would “be an absolute Godsend”.
The response snowballed and soon it wasn’t just uniforms from the three amalgamating schools, but those from primary and nursery schools as well that were being donated.
However, despite a massive response from local parents, no one had anticipated how difficult it would be to actually get the uniforms into Africa.
Sister Mary recalled: “T checked with our nearest port and was told what to do, and did all the man suggested. But then the battle began. The woman at customs who had been so helpful and had told me what to do, and assured me the cargo would be released without difficulty went on leave and nowhere to be seen when the ship arrived.
“The other customs people then told me it was illegal to import second-hand clothing, that it would all be confiscated and that no permit could be given for its release.”
She said she spent a lot of time “alternating between pleading and begging, phoning, emailing and visiting in person”.
“As soon as I thought I was getting somewhere another brick wall was put up,” Sister Mary said.
Eventually the necessary permit came through and Sister Mary sent word to all the priests in the diocese telling them about the uniforms and they could come and take them for needy children.
“I had phone calls from those running orphanages and looking after orphans and vulnerable children, many of whose parents have died from AIDS, as well as from sisters and others who run soup kitchens and nutrition centres.
“A lady phoned from a detention centre where youth who have committed petty crime are kept, often only with the clothes they came in.
“And many mentioned that children in their areas wanted to go to school but were embarrassed because they hadn’t got clothes,” she said.
The Glenarm woman said she was absolutely amazed when she saw the amount and variety of what was in the boxes.
“I think I was so completely overcome that I wasn’t too much help in organising everything!” she said. “Skirts, trousers, blouses, shirts, by the score, all in perfect condition. Uniform from schools I hadn’t even heard of, though the villages and towns were well-known to me since childhood.
“Blazers in purple, black, blue, green, so smart. They will be worn for weddings and very big occasions by men, women and children.
“Calculators, pens, pencils,, pencil cases, tops with the names of famous football players on them, and warm anoraks. Such an amazing variety of wonderful things! The people coming could not believe it. A couple of men had ben trying to get the young lads together for football and to have a strip that they can play in was more than they ever dreamed possible. Little children who never before had a pair of shoes will so much treasure their very first pair.
“This winter, many less children will try in vain to huddle together for warmth or just shiver in misery. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the lives of thousands of children and families in this diocese will have been touched by the generosity of Co Antrim parishioners,” Sister Mary said.
She said a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone involved in the project - parents who gathered up uniforms and brought it to collection points, children who parted with their things to give to the needy, those who sorted and packed and organised the whole thing, to schools who allowed their premises to be used as pick-up points.
“What started as a result of the amalgamation of the three schools quickly developed into a magnificent cross-community project with uniforms and accessories donated from the nursery, primary and secondary sectors.
“Well done to everyone involved,”” said Sister Mary.