Within 30 minutes of meeting Marie Gillespie I've had a cup of tea made for me and a dress altered while we chat. 

The unpaid volunteer of forty years is as welcoming and eager to help in any way, as if it were her first day on the job all those years ago when she joined the Parish Church Council offering her support to fundraise and chaperone events. 

''I heard of the Church Council through the activities my daughter attended, scouts and such.  I volunteered for six or seven years, overseeing events such as the infamous Galliagh Hop.  The money we raised was ploughed back into the parish in order to maintain the indoor space we utilised for the community, young and old alike. The Church was linked to St.Joseph's Community Group who also did great work, so I offered some of my time to them also''.

The eldest of five sisters, Marie recognised the responsibility on her shoulders to be a role model for her siblings, something that has helped shape her 'mother hen' personality.  'I loved school and I broke my heart when I had to leave a year early. I was 14, and at that time there was no such thing as O-Levels, there wasn't even an eleven plus.  I literally finished St.Mary's High School at three pm on Friday and began working in the City Factory at eight am on Monday morning.  It was very daunting for a young teenager as you can imagine! Factories are so big and  intimidating, but my mother who was also a seamstress worked there and that helped me get over my fear a wee bit. 

It wasn't long before Marie met her husband and the newlyweds moved to Glencaw in Galliagh,  welcoming the birth of her daughter three years later.  Taking just six weeks maternity before returning to the factory, Marie says it was a different world then.  'It was the same when I had both of my sons, there was no such thing as maternity pay.  Legally you had to take six weeks to recover and then it was back to work, maybe on a part-time basis. There were no childminders in those days either so the children were babysat by family and were passed from pillar to post but it had to be done.  Family all mucked in and pulled together to look after them, they looked after them as if they were their own''.  

As her children grew Marie found herself becoming more involved in the community, joining the Board of Governors at Lenamore Primary School of which they attended.  ''It was great because as a mother to three of the pupils I had a chance to consult and contribute to any decisions made, even interviewing teachers as part of the recruitment panel''. 

Holding such positions within the community required Marie to train in new areas, and she finally got the opportunity to restart her education.  ''I have that many courses that its hard to remember them all, but I use the skills they provided me with every single day in different situations.  I have a diploma in Community Development, and completed training in Mediation, Communication and Networking.  Every time a new opportunity came up I would I train for it so that I felt confident and capable to contribute to the role, ensuring I would do my best for the community and people I was representing''. 

While supporting St. Joseph's Community Group, Marie says it was clear that the most vulnerable in the area needed  streamlined support.  ''From being on the ground, it became very clear that expectations were so high on the women of the area.  Their role at the time was to bring in the wage from the factories as unemployment was still very high amongst men at this time, yet still continue to look after the home and husbands and children, yet held no authority in the community.   Alongside our two other founding members Anne and Rosie, we founded Galliagh Women's Group which initially operated without a base and took it in turns to host meetings and events in each others homes.  We offered a chance for females to become empowered and teaching them new skills.  When we got our first office it was a 2 bedroom flat in Knockalla from which we taught Maths and English in one bedroom and alternative health therapies in the other''.  Marie is also immensely proud that they were the first women's group to open a Welfare Rights office in their local area. 

Over the years, Marie has moved with the times and the group are now heavily involved in Cross Community activities including Peace and Restoration.  ''Although we are a non political group, after the troubles I found that there was a real need for healing, and for Galliagh women to meet likeminded women who were just from the other side of the city.  I am very proud to be a part of cross community work today, as far away as Belfast, Carrickfergus and Bangor and immensely proud the progress we have made.  We work with a peace and reconciliation group in Glencreagh in Wicklow too, participating in both single identity and mixed group work.  We will actually be travelling to Belfast soon to help start up a similar project and model our structure''. 

The seamstress has also been instrumental in setting up a new Social Enterprise project which offers alterations, sewing and offers todays youth training on how to sow their clothes. ''Todays society is a throwaway society, if something breaks or clothes tear then we tend to throw them away. We offer young people and mothers the training, facilities and equipment to mend their clothes or upcycle them a fresh new look.  We also make and sell patchwork quilts and blankets that are made up of individual squares decorated with the history of our community,   Amelia Earhart for example''. 

When asked what the future looks like for Marie and if there are any plans to stop, she says there is plenty happening to keep her busy.  ''I am four decades volunteering now and I don't think Ill give it up any day soon.  I have the hen shed, work ongoing with the statutory bodies on the new community centre aswell as six amazing grandchildren.  I may have to slow down at some point, but my life has been enriched because of the many beautiful people I have met so why would I want to stop!''. 

Similarly, we believe that there are many lives enriched for having met Marie through her dedication to volunteering.  We chat to her about the work that has meant the most, what makes her happy and how she keeps going, 40 years on.  

How would you describe yourself? Reliable, trustworthy and friendly. 

What makes you laugh? People and in particular my family. 

What is the best compliment you have ever received? There are a few that stand out in my mind but I was very proud because of the feedback I received for my work on the fashion show a few years back.  I had made costumes for the people taking part and it felt so rewarding to hear how positively it was received.  I don't do this for the thanks, but it was nice to feel that sense of achievement. 

What makes you happy? My family, and my children have given me six beautiful grandchildren who are just perfect. Also, making people feel worthwhile, happy and most importantly not alone.

What makes you angry?  If I don't get something done, its not that it makes me angry but I feel very disappointed.  It dosent happen often and often theres a reason.  Other than that, I am not the type to get while annoyed or hold grudges as these things sometimes happen for a reason. 

What has been the high point of your life to date? Being blessed with such a loving mother and father who taught me well.  My mother was a seamstress and my father was a community worker so they have most definitely made me who I am.  Also, having the opportunity to share my skills and energy with others. 

And the low point? Ill health, and not being able to always help others as sometimes my health can hold me back. Also, barriers and that can prevent me from helping because of red tape or protocols. 

If you won the lotto, what would you do with your winnings? I feel like I have won the lotto because of the friends and family I have.  I am blessed and they are all I need. 

What keeps you going, four decades into your volunteering work?  People from the Greater Shantallow Area are so special.  Their friendliness is unmatched, they are so loyal and so willing to help the greater community even when some have little.  Also, helping people and witnessing someone who thinks they don't have any skills actually open up and then seeing their skills surface as they become more confident, there is no feeling like it.  

 

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