Elizabeth White

Making a difference: An interview with Elizabeth White


It's now eleven years since Elizabeth White changed direction in her career. Having previously worked as a manager in hotels such as Mullingar's Greville Arms and Bloomfield House, she decided to make the move away from hospitality and into the social care sector.

The switch arose from the fact that she no longer found the hotel role fulfilling and was more drawn to the idea of working with young people and helping them through life's struggles. 

"I found that what I enjoyed most was helping and supporting people," she says. "I started some voluntary work in youth clubs. I enjoyed that, and that’s when I went back and re-trained in youth work and special needs. 

"I continued to work in hotels while I was re-training, and then I jumped ship and went straight into working in high-support residential care."

For the last six years, Elizabeth has been working for the National Learning Network (NLN). She is now the manager of its two Athlone centres, in Belhavel and Blyry, having managed other NLN centres prior to this and also worked on an employment project across Westmeath.

Originally from Clonalvy in county Meath - "I'm still very much a Royal!" she smiles - she is now an active member of the local community in Ballymore, where she resides with her husband, Barry McDermott, and their children Odhrán (6) and Sadbh (3).

Elizabeth has been based in the Midlands since 2002. Her first social care job, in a residential facility in Meath, involved working with children with intellectual disabilities and challenging behaviour.

"We worked on a 24-hour shift basis, so it was tough, but we had a great team," she recalls.

"It was tough both physically and mentally, but I loved it. I had the ability to not bring (the job) home. When I walked out the door, I didn’t carry it with me. I learned a lot about leading a team here within a social care setting.”

While working in residential care she also worked in Mullingar in the person-centred wing of the Muiriosa Foundation, which supports people with an intellectual disability and their families. “I wanted to gain as much experience within the sector in different settings,” she says.

She joined the National Learning Network in 2013 and since then she has gone back to do a post-graduate qualification from Trinity College in applied social studies.

Having previously managed the Portlaoise centre, she succeeded Johnny Pettit as manager of the two Athlone centres in 2017. The role is one which allows her to draw on the training and the skills she developed in previous roles.

"My work history and experience is a good mix because there's the business side of things, which I need in order to manage the centre, but also the social care side needed to work with our students”.

"Between the hospitality industry and residential high-support, you can’t get two tougher areas in which to work. So it’s great. I’m drawing on the skills and knowledge I’ve picked up along the way."

The National Learning Network provides a range of flexible training programmes and services for people who need specialist support, including job seekers, people with an illness or disability, and probation service clients.

There are 76 places on its various courses and programmes in Athlone, and the local organisation is operated by a team of 18 staff.

The variety of the work is one of the aspects that Elizabeth finds enjoyable.

"We have a great team and they’ve shown me immense support since I started here," she says.

"Challenges come up on a daily basis – in this job there are no two days the same. So it’s about being able to prioritise and seeing what needs to be dealt with first."

The National Learning Network's programmes are funded by a variety of organisations and each programme's emphasis differs depending on the funding body.

"The HSE-funded programmes are focused on health and social gain," explains Elizabeth.

"We have a school-leaver programme, and a mental health programme. The probation programme (Stepping Out) is aimed at reducing re-offending or for people that may be at risk, and then our vocational training programmes, which are funded by the Longford Westmeath Education and Training Board, are focused on certification and employment."

The courses don't run on the traditional academic calendar - instead there is continuous intake of students all year round.

"The referral of a student can come from directly from the social welfare office or HSE, or it can come from a family or the person themselves. If a person is interested we would encourage them to get in touch and to talk to us. Students remain on a payment when training.

"There’s good success of employment as an outcome from our programmes, and then there are further education options available as well."

One of rewarding aspects of the role can involve helping to support people who are going through a personal crisis.

"We have the support functions here to help, or we know where to (direct someone). We have a psychologist, rehabilitation officer, resource teacher, instructors, and then myself, and we can all jump in when an emergency happens, whether it’s housing, medical or just generally helping out the students."

Another highlight was an awards ceremony which took place last October and saw certification being awarded to students for their work over the previous year.

"It was my first full year as centre manager, so I knew all the students coming through, so it was just a very proud day. Everyone enjoyed it, it all went to plan, and we had a great attendance from other agencies.

"Another reward is getting people into employment. When our employer-based training instructor tells me that a student, who might just have been in for a few months, has been offered a job from being on their work placement it’s just brilliant."

She also praises the support functions and career progression available to staff and management in the National Learning Network.

"Especially for me, as a woman, I've found it a good organisation for progression. It’s been really positive. The managers are all based in different regions but we'd meet on a regular basis and there’s always another manager on the end of the phone if something comes up that you’re unsure about. It’s a good place to work."

Being organised in her work and personal life has enabled her to take on a number of community roles outside of the 'day job'.

While busy with her two young children, she is also the secretary of 'Gaelic 4 Mothers & Others' in Ballymore GAA club, and is secretary of the Ballymore Community Playground group. The group has been working on developing a new playground, behind the community centre, and this is due to be constructed next month.

Elizabeth also took on a running challenge last year. "I ran the St Patrick's Day 2018 Half Marathon in Mullingar in aid of the MRI scanner in Mullingar hospital and the Irish Crohn's Society.

"I had a bowel resection operation due to Crohn's disease in October 2017 and decided after that to give something back, so my training started. Six months after the surgery I achieved my goal."

She has been residing in Ballymore for the last five years and finds it a welcoming place in which to live.

"It's a good community. Very easy to live in, and to get to know people. There's a great neighbourly feel and I’ve made some really good friends there," she concludes.