Happy Days community preschool is located right in the heart of Ratoath, Co Meath. On the main street and part of the modern community centre, the preschool first opened its doors in 2006 and now welcomes 42 children every day. I had heard lots of stories about what was happing in this little corner of the community; there are Kindness Elves who did good deeds for others, visits to the local nursing home and a Christmas shows that involves the local choir and where everyone is invited. I wanted to learn more, so I sat down with Eilish Balfe, the manager of Happy Days to find out a little bit about how she and her team have been working to make sure the children at Happy Days are proud and active citizens of Ratoath.
Q: Eilish, you go out of your way to involve the children what’s happening in the community, what made you decide to do that?
When I started here at Happy Days I was so impressed with the beautiful facilities we have here, right in the centre of Ratoath, we have the community centre, the theatre, we have people and groups coming in and out every day and I wanted to respect that. I wanted to use that opportunity to make Happy Days and the children who attend here part of the community.
The children here today are the community of tomorrow. They are the ones who are going to be running the knitting group, they are the ones who will be running meals-on-wheels and the nursing home. It’s good for them to learn that these things don’t run by themselves and children can get involved in a way that is appropriate for their age.
Ratoath has been very welcoming to the children as we go out and about; everyone waves at the children as we walk down the road in yellow jackets, they are part of the community now and people notice that.
Q: Tell me about some of the activities you do with the children
It started off with small things and we just built on it from there. We have a kindness month where the children become the Kindness elves and they do good deeds for others. They would get a good deed suggestion to go home with and work on over the weekend at home, then the deeds expanded; from thanking other people who have helped the children in some way to collecting for the homeless or buying a cake for someone who is sick.
Each week we visit the local nursing home- Silver Stream. A group of 9 or 10 of the children go over each Thursday and spend a few hours with the residents. We sing, we play games and we talk to the residents. The children ask questions like “why are you old?”, “why do you have no hair?”. The children say they are going to visit the Granny and Grandads of Ratoath, they just love it. We prepare the children before we go, we explain that there will be different smells, different sounds and what they can expect to see. Everybody looks forward to the visits and the residents love to see the children coming.
I am passionate about inter-generational learning, there is so much that the older and younger generation have in common; they get along so well and learn so much from each other. I would love to see every preschool matched up with a nursing home, they shouldn’t be segregated, you see such an amazing bond between the children and residents.
We go out with the local meals-on-wheels group. Last year that was part of a month-long kindness initiative and this year it is evolving and we are making our meals-on-wheels trips a more regular activity.
We also have an active Tidy Towns group in Ratoath and this year the children are looking after a stretch of road in the village and keeping it tidy. It really teaches them to be responsible and to be active citizens. We have a lot more ideas and plans for this year, we’re constantly evolving and including more and more people throughout the community.
Q: The Happy Days Christmas show has quite a reputation, can you tell me about that?
Well, we have this wonderful centre with the theatre here and the show is a great opportunity to use that. Everyone in the community is invited and, as part of the event, we turn on the Christmas lights for the village. Every year we have to draw a name out of a hat for that because of course, they all want to do it. The local rugby team come along as Santa’s elves and the local choir come to sing with the children. It is a fantastic event but this year we are going a couple of steps further. We have a plan to include the residents of the nursing home, singing with the children and we will be incorporating sign language to make it as inclusive as possible. I’m really excited to see that come together this year.
Q: If someone wanted to start a similar initiative, what advice would you give them?
I’d say start off in your own setting. The Healthy Ireland Smart Start programme was a great way for us to start exploring emotions with the children; we focussed on kindness and reinforced positive kindness behaviours at Happy Days. That helped the children become aware of the importance of kindness and how to practice it.
We also met with parents and explained what we wanted to achieve and why we were doing it and they were so supportive. We have had great feedback from parents where they are telling us stories of how their child is practising kindness at home. It is wonderful to see the effect that teaching kindness can have.
After that, it was about finding opportunities in the community and just doing it. The nursing home visits came about because I was there one day and I just asked. People are very supportive of the children and it has been a real community effort. The children will also have ideas on what they would like to do, who they would like to help. They are the community of tomorrow and it is important to get them involved.
I was so inspired by my coffee and chat with Eilish, as we spoke I was struck not only by the bigger initiatives that they have taken on but also the little things that she and her team just do every day to involve the community. In winter when the cold and flu season was approaching a local representative came in and demonstrated “The Dab” for coughing and sneezing, the centre’s cleaner came in and talked about tissues and hygiene. They have collected for the homeless, given out free coffees, brought cake to people who are sick, given out sweets to people in the village on Valentine’s day. Eilish and her team have a lot of plans for the children of Happy Days and the community in Ratoath, from a children’s book exchange, an alternative advent calendar, to a month dedicated to inter-generational learning. She is a powerhouse of a lady who is passionate about her children and ensuring they become active members of the community. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the children of Happy Days get up to this year.