The Spark, The Moment, The Progress, The Change.

Many times I have been asked how I went from running a tile retailer, to doing a Sports Science Degree; and then just as people have put me in a box I completely changed tack and pursue a career in development. For me, it has been a simple progression, it’s just taken time with many distractions along the way!

Since I was quite young I have always volunteered for different things, always spoke out, always fought injustice, stood up to bullies (sometimes taking a beating along the way…haha), hated inequality and discrimination. My folks were a good example to me when I was growing up, they were always involved in local community and youth groups so volunteering was something that came naturally to me. I suppose the moment was waiting for me to be ready.

After the banking crises destroyed the construction industry and my business along with it, I was left in a situation of deep despair. But I am lucky and can count on good family, good friends and good teachers. They know the type of person I am and they knew the key for me was a focus. A cunning plan between my wife and a good friend saw me heading to Kenya for the first time in 2008. This trip changed my life; not immediately, but over time one moment kept coming back to me. A spark started a fire, which started to burn brightly.

You know they say young people don’t know what they want. Well, do you know what? Neither do old guys! While doing my degree, I realised that a career in sports therapy would not satisfy the need in me. During this time, I travelled to Kenya many times working with Cara Projects. The draw to do something, to make a difference was strong. And so I ended up searching for a development course. I applied for many and got the call for a few, but after an interview with Dr Susan Murphy in Trinity College Dublin, I only wanted one thing – a Master’s of Science in Development Practice.


And so I signed up for another two years of college, and I will never forget my first four weeks of the course, I doubted my own ability. My classmates seemed so well educated, so assured. However, after a couple of weeks I found my place and I have definitely grown into this course. I love the diversity of my classmates, I love that we are feisty, we are very strong-willed and driven. It has certainly made me up my game!

I have to say I find the course challenging at times and can sometimes be driven to distraction, but overall the balance for me has been good. I don’t think I have ever thought about development issues so deeply, nor have I engaged with a subject with so much enjoyment (just ask my family, my head is never out of a book!). It’s the type of thing I like to do; it’s engaging and challenging with plenty of scopes for me to develop my expertise in my own area. As a wise man once said to me, if it was easy everyone would be doing it!

Figure 2: Development practitioners work is never done… it’s not all about writing policy papers! 

I want to go back eight years ago to the spark that lit the fire that is burning bright. While feeling very depressed and thinking I had no future, I took a trip to a children’s home in Kibera, Kenya. One hundred and thirty children living in two rooms the size of my kitchen. I was not shocked. I was more amazed; in fact, I think I was actually quite numb. I stood away from the crowd and watched, as people got pictures with the children. I couldn’t take photos of kids living in such conditions, but then a child, a young girl the same age as my boys at home, asked me if I was OK. I was stunned and humbled at the same time. My emotions ran over. The dignity in poverty that this girl had was stunning, her pride was intact, she was dignified and caring, she was my spark. Working in development is not for everyone, I think it may be for me.

Figure 3: Discussing the Cara Girls Centre with Irish Ambassador to Kenya Dr Vincent O’Neill and Paddy O’Connor, Cara Projects.

Blog Authored by: Alan Phelan, a second year graduate student,  MSc in Development Practice.


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