In this instalment of our Rehab Staff Champions series, we hear from former top chef Aodhagan Fitzsimons, who has been an instructor with the National Learning Network (NLN) for the last 11 years
I didn’t always know I wanted to work with people with disabilities or mental health difficulties. I grew up in Carrickmacross, a town in Co Monaghan. I had an interest in food and cooking, so after finishing secondary school I went to college in Killybegs, Co Donegal, and trained as a chef. In those days it was the only place to go if you wanted to work in a kitchen at a senior level. After graduating I worked in some of the top hotels in the country, from the Glencarn Hotel to Cabra Castle. I met all the famous celebrities, catered for national functions and dined with the sports stars. But after ten years in the kitchen, I felt I had served my time. You get to a point where you ask yourself ‘do I want to be doing this when I’m 60?’. I had a lot of outside interests and felt that I could do a bit more with myself.
I took the plunge and started studying at night time whilst working in a school kitchen during the day. I first came in contact with the Rehab Group and National Learning Network (NLN) when a local manager knocked on my kitchen door and asked if could take on some learners for work experience. I built up a relationship with the organisation and started covering maternity and summer leave in the Phibsborough centre’s catering course. Once I got a taste of the work, I knew this was the job for me.
Eleven years ago I applied for the Fresh Start Instructor role in Ballyfermot and I’ve been here ever since. The nine month course is aimed at people who are looking to get a new start, or who’ve had a mental health setback. I meet people who haven’t been working in a while and are anxious, it’s about giving them the skills to get a job or further education. It helps to get people back into a routine, builds up their confidence and beings them out of isolation.
The most challenging part of the role is when you know somebody is not seeing their true potential, but you can be amazed at how people transform before your eyes over a couple of months. It’s great to see people moving on and doing really well. You meet people who have gone back to university and others who’ve got jobs. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t get a sense of pride or achievement when somebody comes back to you and says they’ve progressed.
National Learning Network (NLN) is the education and training division of the Rehab Group. With over 50 training centres across the country, NLN offers over 70 training courses to early school leavers, people with disabilities, mental health issues, or unemployed. Go to nln.ie for more information