As we approach Christmas time, it is comforting to know that we have a secret CSR hero in our midst. The 36-year-old Team Leader is married to a woman from South Africa who had a 17-year-old daughter. They have a 4-year-old son and have settled in Kells, Co. Meath. Here, he shares his story in a real-life winter's tale.
In 2005, this man boarded an Aer Lingus flight from Barcelona to Dublin to start a new life for himself. The challenge was that he did not speak a word of English and had just €100 to his name. In essence, he had to make something happen for himself. Initially, though, the dream did not turn out so well. He had enough money to stay in a hostel for three nights. Following that, he ended up being homeless for five days. It was a shocking experience that triggered something deep within him - a desire to help others in the same situation when he could find himself in better circumstances.
How did he pick up the language? Well, having no money, he became inventive. For weeks, he would sit in pubs in Dublin's famous tourist district of Temple Bar, order a glass of tap water and people watch while listening intently to this new language. Ironically, he had studied Tourism in college near Seville. Now, he was studying tourists. With a little English behind him, he was quickly able to get a job as a security guard in a hostel where he was also offered a place to stay.
By 2008, with better English, he was working at Hertz car hire close to Dublin Airport. Outside of work, his friends would hear him play the guitar and encouraged him to start giving professional music classes. The guitar was an instrument that he had loved since he was 8 years old. Before he knew it, he had 15 people calling to his apartment after work for lessons.
From there, he quit his job in car hire to set up a financially successful guitar studio in a rented premises in Dublin. But by 2010, when the recession began to bite even harder in Ireland, he found himself with dwindling funds after making some poor investment decisions. He only had two paying customers left. His wife was not working at the time and he found it difficult to find a job in the downturn after being out of the system, so to speak, as a businessman. It got to a stage where he could not feed his family and decided to seek help from Focus Ireland, the country's biggest voluntary association.
"My business failed, I felt like a failure, and nobody wanted to give me a chance. It was very tough. In hindsight, it was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. That is when I really started to grow much more as a human being. The volunteers at Focus Ireland never judged me and allowed everyone to share their unique experiences of life - the good, the bad, and the horrible. The sheer way that I was listened to gave me a glimmer of hope to carry on and find a way to provide for my family once more. It has been a while since this happened to me but I will never forget it. Those awful days made me stronger. I really saw things in a different way and suddenly appreciated everything," he said.
Eventually, he was able to get back on his feet after finding a job. As the economy improved, more people started taking music lessons with him on the weekends. "I was brought up by a father who was very selfish and looking out for himself. There was no room for looking after anyone else. It was a tough upbringing." His parents, both of whom are still alive, divorced when he was 12. Fast forward another 12 years and he had just landed on Irish shores. His experience with Focus Ireland planted a seed inside. One particularly poignant story stands out.
A woman from North America who he had befriended through Focus Ireland was a former heroin addict who lives with HIV and had lost an eye to illness. Back then, her confidence was so shattered that she could never look him straight in the eye. She approached him as she had a desire to learn how to play the guitar. Her friends gave her €200 to pay for the lessons. Our Customer Service Representative handed it back to her asking her to use the money to buy her two children something for Christmas as it was the 13th of December. It was this act that gave him a desire to want to give back more.
"The truth is that a few years before I would never have bothered to speak with a woman like that. I would have been afraid of her. Now, I feel that if you have time to judge someone, you do not have the time to love them. Later, I told her that she should walk with her head held high as she had nothing to be ashamed of. It was a full year before I met her again when she came knocking on the door of my guitar studio on a Saturday. I will never forget how healthy she looked compared to a year earlier. Her two children were happy and she was after getting married and got a job as a translator. She said that I helped to change her life and without my encouragement, she would have been dead. That moved me so much. That sort of feeling is something that you want to repeat again and again."
This inspired him to start a charity gift card initiative where donations are converted into guitar lessons. All money raised through lessons and events has been given to his two chosen charities, Focus Ireland and Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, Dublin. Over the past five years, over €23,000 has been raised. In the past year alone, over €12,000 has been donated.
He was bullied in school as a teenager back home in Spain after his mother and father split up. It was a time when this was seen as a major social mishap in his local community. Today, he gives motivational talks in schools in Ireland.
"The most important lesson I learned during a difficult time was that you cannot change people but people can be the reason you want to change. That is what inspired me in the first place and that is what I am trying to do more of now. As soon as I got back on my feet I asked Focus Ireland what I could do. Every Christmas since 2011, my family and I go out to help and feed the homeless. If I can be remembered for something by family and friends, it will be for helping other people. That is very personal to me."
What I have come to learn in documenting personal stories over the years is that it is a privilege and a beautiful moment when someone trusts you enough to let you in and for them to break down in tears. Then you know there is no barrier and it is pure, raw emotion entering the conversation. It is especially powerful when the truth the person is expressing also makes the interviewer chokeup inside. That is the power of storytelling - to move someone without judgment. When he handed me a sample gift card valued at €100, I suddenly realised that I had two spare fifty Euro notes in my wallet after a plumber was a no-show at my home last night. I did not expect what happened next but it just goes to show the power of the culture within the PFS family. Inspired by our World Food Programme campaign to feed a target of 200,000 school children in Mali in West Africa with a matching donation from Mastercard, our CSR representative has matched the amount with a personal contribution. Out of respect for the interviewee's wishes, his name and full details are with the author.
Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year 2018 to you and yours.