When Sally Kelly met with family and friends for a big retirement bash – or ‘a wee party’ as it was billed – last night at Friel’s Hotel, nostalgia was flowing.
It was just around the corner, in a room above the paper shop, that she first encountered the playgroup in Raphoe, 33 years ago in 1983.
Her eldest son, Paul, had started off in the new playgroup facility, which was being led at the time by Gillian Graham.
The parents, including Sally, a native of Glasgow who wasn’t long in Raphoe at the time, took turns to help out.
A vacancy soon arose and Sally was approached by the committee in charge to gauge her interest in the role of Assistant Playgroup Leader.
The wages were modest, around 10 shillings a day, but the rewards stretched beyond financial gain.
“It was a brilliant way of getting to know people in the community,” Sally reflects now, 33 years on, as she finally readies herself to say goodbye to Raphoe Community Playgroup.
Now based at a purpose-built facility on Castle Road, things have changed greatly since ’83.
They moved to a prefab at the Health Centre, then a bigger prefab before taking up residence at their current location.
The changes, though, have gone beyond location.
“I’ve seen so many changes, really massive changes in society,” Sally says.
“In the beginning when I was starting off, it was all mums who were taking the children into playgroup. That then became grannies and grandads.
“During the recession years then we saw a lot of dads bringing the kids in.
“Things changed in so many ways and I think a lot of changes in children’s behaviour could be because of that too.”
She remembers the days when she’d have a single jotter, in which she’d have the relevant details of all the children.
“Now, you need a jotter for each child,” she says, “but things have changed, but changed for the better.
“The playgroups were such a positive thing to bring into the different areas in Donegal. It’s giving children skills for life.
“I started to do different courses in childcare, but I never saw or thought of it as a career. I grew with the playgroup; I trained with it and moved with it.
“We were lucky as we could grow with the playgroup. There was no training. I actually had to go and look for training. It was just up to yourself and your own enthusiasm.
“Whereas now it’s education and then the job, it was the other way about me and was hands-on to begin with and then the learning came.”
She’s spanned four generations of children in Raphoe.
She mightn’t see certain parents for a few years, in between children, but the regular ‘God, are you still hear?’ jokes spanned the generations.
“I’d always say that if there was a Monday morning that I’d wake up and didn’t want to go to work that that would be the end of me in there,” she says.
“What I set out to achieve for myself I have done that.
“I know that I’ll miss it. Before I decided to retire, I had plans for what I’d do. I have it prepared for about two years.
“I wanted to prepare the staff and to prepare the playgroup. It wasn’t a case where I’d suddenly wake up one day and say: ‘Yeah, I’m going to retire’. You need to prepare what you’re leaving behind.”
The changes in the way the world operates was apparent a few weeks back when an ‘education inspection’ was carried out in Raphoe for the first time.
Sally says: “We always had Health Board inspections, but we had an education inspection for the first time recently. It’s a brilliant idea.
“It gets you a chance to showcase what you’re doing for the child and there is great job satisfaction for people when they get praise.
“We are working with children at a really important stage. After the parents, we are their first connections.
“Playschool is a big part of education.
“A child’s education will follow if they are socially and emotionally ready for that. It’s about homing in on that side of a child’s development. Their learning will come easily. That’s what we emphasise. If they are in a good place socially and emotionally, the learning will follow.”
For the last 25 years Sally has worked alongside Fiona McCrabbe and Margaret Hamilton – ‘that continuity has been brilliant to the community,’ she says – but the baton is to be passed.
Since September, Sally has been mentoring Sarah McMenamin and the day is almost upon her when she’ll close the door behind her for the last time.
“I want to spend more time with my family, particularly with my grandchildren,” she says.
“ My family will be glad, after all the years at courses and different things, with assignments and training.
“I have family in different parts of Ireland and, of course, I love swimming so I’ll have more time for me to do things I enjoy.”
‘That Monday morning’ never came and there was never a week that begin without a smile.
She says: “There was never a time where I didn’t want to go into work. It wasn’t always easy and there were huge challenges sometimes, but the job was so rewarding – I loved every minute of it.”