Mayor of Athlone Cllr Jim Henson pictured outside the Monsignor McCarthy Family Resource Centre in Battery Heights with the staff and voluntary committee, pictured L-R: Emma Conlon, Thomas Berry, Linda Jo-Quinn, Nuala O'Brien, Mayor Jim Henson, Sr Louise, Nora McEvilly, Patrica Conlon, Ann Galvin, Eddie Costello, Sheena Lawless and Clementina Mustapha. Kneeling at front: Albie Marsh.
In a previously barren corner at the back of Battery Heights, green shoots were starting to sprout.
Cabbage, lettuce, shallots, potatoes, carrots and other vegetables were planted by local residents in their new community allotment, and despite the best efforts of the Irish 'summer', several of the crops were showing signs of progress.
"This (piece of land) was full of crap before we put in the allotment," said Eddie Costello, one of the residents who worked on the project.
"Being out here at the gardening is great therapy. If you were stuck in the house all the time, you'd crack. It's good to get out and do something."
The new allotment is one of the projects associated with the Monsignor McCarthy Family Resource Centre. This week the Westmeath Independent visited the centre to speak to community members and staff about the contribution it is making in an Athlone estate which has long been synonymous with social disadvantage.
Established in 2006, the centre organises recreational and educational groups and classes for local children, teenagers and adults, as well as providing an advocacy service for the community. It originally operated out of a single room in the Monsignor McCarthy Complex, but in 2009 Athlone Town Council made a mid-terrace house available at the rear of Battery Heights and the centre moved into this house the following year.
When we arrived on Monday morning, the place was humming with activity. A women's group meets there every week and in the downstairs of the house the group's members were gathered around a table, sipping cups of tea.
A sense of camaraderie among the neighbours was clearly evident as they spoke about the importance of the women's group in their weekly routine.
"It's about friendship and companionship - getting together and doing things together," said one of the members, Stasia Lynch. "You'd miss it if it wasn't on."
The group organises a bingo night in the centre every Monday and in recent years it has taken part in art classes, a FETAC course in caring for the elderly, and outings to Knock and elsewhere. They bake on a regular basis and work on flower arrangements.
They have also organised some special meals and celebrations. Sr Teresa described herself as "the granny of the group" and she was delighted when the others cooked a four-course meal to celebrate her 80th birthday in February of this year.
A similar meal was organised in honour of former co-ordinator Lynda McCormack when she departed from the centre recently, while a party was organised last weekend for Ann Berry, who turns 60 this week.
An outing to a similar family resource centre in Kildare is planned shortly, while a bingo fundraiser for the centre is being planned by the women's group towards the end of the year.
"When your family is reared it's nice to have something like this to do," commented Bridget Dowling. "It gets you out of your house anyway."
At the back of the centre a greenhouse has been set up to serve as a workshop for members of its men's group. The centre's acting co-ordinator, Sheena Lawless, said this 'men's shed' was "based on the Australian model, the idea that men can communicate better when they're working shoulder to shoulder."
She added: "I think it's so important for the men to have a place to go. With the closure of the Shannon Bank Training Centre some of them would have felt a void in their day but they've identified that they can now come and get involved in the men's shed. The group was originally meeting on a Tuesday but now they're showing up voluntarily five days a week."
Two of the men involved - Eddie Costello and Albert Marsh - talked about how it was necessary to keep working on various projects in order to keep their minds occupied.
Albert had constructed a hugely intricate and detailed model of a cottage from various materials, while a neighbour of his who is also involved with the men's group made an impressive model of an old-fashioned wagon out of matchsticks.
Eddie said there was an increasing willingness among men in the community to help each other out on work projects in and around their homes.
"We all help each other. We're trying to get some paint so that we can paint the front of people's houses. If anyone was able to donate some paint to us that would be a big help. If we clean up the front of the houses and get them painted, the difference it makes is huge," he said.
"When we were kids growing up all the neighbours would help each other, and now that seems to be happening again."
One of the main projects at the centre is a second-level homework club, which runs from Mondays to Thursdays.
"We support second level students by providing volunteers who help with their homework and by providing a hot meal," said Sheena.
Twenty-six students were signed up for the club at the beginning of the year, though their attendance tends to fluctuate. One of those involved in the homework club was Cheyanne O'Neill, a 15-year-old member of the Athlone Boxing Club who's really looking forward to following Katie Taylor's exploits in the Olympics.
Cheyanne is herself a very promising young boxer who won the All Ireland cadets title in 2011. "I train three times a week and I'm out running on the days when I'm not in (the gym), so it's practically an everyday thing. I love it," she said.
On the day of our visit, the centre was also hosting the 'kids in training together' group, which had been set up after a need was identified for a place in the estate where children from the age of six could gather on a regular basis. Other roles carried out by the centre include providing relationship and bereavement counselling for members of the community and advocating for them in their dealings with the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS), their banks, eircom, the ESB and other agencies.
"People trust you with a lot of their personal issues, whether it be medical, financial, domestic... no matter what it is," said Sheena.
The centre's administrator, Clementina Mustapha, concurred. "We've experienced deaths and suicides in the area and there's no restraint (from the bereaved) when it comes to talking to you about it. Because of that, we can then ask them if they need support or counselling," she said.
They both agreed that one of the most welcome aspects of the centre's first six years has been the way in which it's been accepted and adopted by members of the community.
Locals were hesitant about coming to the centre when it first opened, but that has since changed.
"The fact that they have accepted us in the community is fantastic and is very rewarding because it's very hard to break down those barriers," said Sheena.
Clementina concluded that, for her, the biggest reward she gained from working at the Monsignor McCarthy Centre was "going home knowing that you made a difference, even if it's just for one day."