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The 2001 All-Ireland Winner Who Became A Humanitarian

The 2001 All-Ireland Winner Who Became A Humanitarian

Could he have done it without the platform being an inter-county star gave him? Maybe. One thing Alan Kerins is sure about: starting a charity and raising millions for projects in Africa would have been more difficult had he not been an All-Ireland winner.

In 2005, the former Galway dual player founded the Alan Kerins Project following a volunteering trip to Zambia. 14 years on, circumstances have changed - they have merged with Self-Help Africa - but he's still focussed on raising funds to help the children he first encountered in his late 20s.

"I was working as a physiotherapist in Galway and a few things had happened in 2004," says Kerins, a member of the 2019 panel for the Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Awards, about the origins of his charity work.

[There was] A relationship break-up, that hammering to Kilkenny [in the All-Ireland qualifiers] and we lost the county football final, so a lot had happened and I said, ‘I’m going to get away from here for a bit of a break’.

I started looking into Africa then and I went to one or two of the big organisations. I wanted to go in the winter months, September to Christmas, so I’d be back for the pre-season but they had no vacancies.

I had a chance meeting with a priest here in Dublin who was bringing us to the airport. I was going to London on the beer with a few of the lads around November and he was dropping us to the airport and he said, ‘Are you going to Africa?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not, it’s fallen through.’ He said, ‘Sure you can go to Zambia with our guys’ and I kind of said yeah but didn’t know what way it was going to go, I kind of wanted to go with young people.

So when he came back, he’d an email back from one of his colleagues across the road from an Irish nun [Sister Cathy Crawford] who was running a home for disabled children who were stuck for a physio and she’d take me for a short period but she couldn’t take me until January in 2005. I I said, ‘Feck it, I’ll sacrifice the league and I’ll go for three months’ and the rest is history.

Kerins traces the choice to focus on Africa back to his childhood and watching Live Aid with its accompanying images of starving children. His father donated prize money he'd won at a local golf tournament in Gort. "I’m not sure if it was £1800 or £800 but it was a lot of money at the time and he gave it all over to Live Aid," says Kerins.

There was also a talk which Bishop Desmond Tutu gave in Galway that resonated with him, one about the psychological benefits of helping others.

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"When I came back, I never intended to set up a charity or raise money," tells Kerins, who won an All-Ireland football title with Galway in 2001, an All-Ireland club football title with Salthill- Knocknacarra in 2006 and an All-Ireland club hurling title with Clarinbridge in 2011.

"I was just blown away by what she was doing and all I wanted to do was tell her story and try to raise a few pounds for her because she had 75 kids in her care at any given time and she was trying to build houses, sink wells.

"800 people were starving in her area, trying to feed those and one woman, she was dragging the community by her hands herself and I said, ‘Jesus, she’s an unbelievable woman, her story needs to be told and she needs to be helped’.

"So I just said, ‘What would you like?’ and she said, ‘I want five grand for a borehole for clean drinking water because there’s no water in the area and if I can get one well, I’ll get more because there’s no money but I need to teach them how to grow their own food, how to get water, how to get the seeds'.

"Then Damien Eagers [a photographer with Sportsfile] was out there visiting his uncle. He was on the All-Star trip to Boston the year before. He said, 'Will I take a few photos?' That was great because I only had the old Kodak camera back in the day. He took brilliant photos and we used those when I came back to put together a brochure.

"I only had the intention of raising five grand. We got to the All-Ireland hurling final that year. It's amazing how it clicks into gear. Darren Frehill was working with TV3 and he came down to do an interview before the All-Ireland final and said he'd give it a little plug. He saw the pictures and said, 'Fuck, there's a documentary in that'. Then he got TV3 to commission a full, hour-long documentary the following Christmas.

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"Five grand became 50 grand became 500 grand became five million became 20 million, whatever it is today. That's how it started, by small coincidences - it was very organic."

That first trip to Africa was a shock for Kerins. He returned with just the clothes he was wearing, having given away the rest. After spending €50 on a pair of jeans at Blanchardstown Shopping Centre, he felt guilty knowing the money could have helped feed ten families.

"I was scared shitless going out the first time," says Kerins.

"I was on my own as well. I was going into a really remote area and working with kids with severe disabilities, which could have been prevented with proper deliveries and vaccinations.

"Then you had people coming up and tapping their belly, 'Hungry, hungry'. You're not prepared for that. There were queues to Cathy's door for food; people were starving, they had ragged clothes. That was quite a shock.

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"It's very hard to switch it off when you see it, smell it and live it for 24 hours a day for three months. When you watch it on television, you can turn it off and put on the Champions League or the Cork match, you'll see the scenes but forget about it.

"When you smell it and live and see kids dying of AIDS or HIV, it's very hard not to do something about it when you have a platform, an ability to help.

"That was the first time. It's normal now in my eyes. You have to become desensitised sometimes for your own emotional well-being. You have to compartmentalise because it could really affect you if you didn't. It's no good for you.

"Where we are now, it's not scary - it's really powerful. People are struggling but they'd blow you away with their inspiration, their resilience, their creativity, their community spirit. We can learn an awful lot from them.

"Sometimes you'd drive through a community and see kids running free as a bird and you'd say, 'Who are we to impose our idea of life on them?' They're happy out the way they are. Yes, you can give them education; just give them the basics and they'll be happy rather than trying to force a way of living on them which is hugely stressful."

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Kerins's role has changed over the years. He now works in business development with Self-Help Africa on a part-time basis, bringing in funds.

Earlier this month, he spent time with 1995 Rugby World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar at the South African's golf tournament in New York. (Playing "well" he adds.)

"We're looking to do something down in South Africa with him," says Kerins.

"He does great work with MAD [Make A Difference] Leadership Foundation. They bring really talented and high potential young kids from poor backgrounds right through the education system to become doctors. His goal is to create 1,000 leaders in South Africa who would make a difference within the communities."

There are other projects too: He's starting a Global Citizen Movement which aims to give people a platform to make the changes they want to see in the world; he also founded the Inner Winner Institute which runs executive coaching sessions, leadership programmes and personal development retreats - some in Ireland, some in Africa.

On those trips to Africa, many have a life-changing experience similar to the one Kerins had 14 years ago.

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"You can’t but come away and not say, ‘Why was I lucky to be born here, given every opportunity in the world? Then there’s people in other countries who struggle to put food on the table and that’s their only goal for the day. Why was I lucky enough to have the world at my feet here, become a doctor, physio, nurse, sportsperson?'

"That jolts people in questioning everything. Their values, their perspectives, what they are doing with their lives. They find it really transformational.

"Often people come away realising they have a great life and go onto enjoy it; often people realise, ‘I’m sleepwalking through life here and I need to change something big time. I hate this job. Why am I accepting it?’"

When he speaks at a school or for one of his leadership programmes, Kerins tells them about the money his father donated in 1985. It had a positive ripple effect on his life. More than 30 years on, Kerins continues to do the same for many others.

Donegal’s most decorated Footballer, Karl Lacey, former Galway dual-star, Alan Kerins, former Waterford Hurling Manager, Derek McGrath and former Dublin footballer, Tomás Quinn have joined forces as the 2019 Panel for the Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Awards. This year Electric Ireland’s #GAAThisIsMajor campaign, now in its sixth year, will highlight the positive impact that the Minor Championship has on players long after their days on the field as a Minor have ended.

Photo credits: Sportsfile & ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

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