New free counselling service to open in heart of Derry from next week

Left to right: Volunteers Marion Rankin, Ronagh O'Donnell, Shauna O'Donnell, Amanda Vincent and Eddie Vincent.
Left to right: Volunteers Marion Rankin, Ronagh O'Donnell, Shauna O'Donnell, Amanda Vincent and Eddie Vincent.

A free counselling service for local people will open up in the heart of Derry next week, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated team of volunteers including qualified counsellors over the past year.

Oak Counselling, which already has a fundraising charity shop in Union Hall Place, behind the City Walls, will officially open its doors on Monday in a large first floor premises which runs from above the shop to the bottom corner of Shipquay Street.

Some of the goods for sale in the second-hand shop at Union Hall Place. The proceeds of the shop are being used to help fund the counselling service.

Some of the goods for sale in the second-hand shop at Union Hall Place. The proceeds of the shop are being used to help fund the counselling service.

Work is nearing completion on counselling rooms and a reception area, while other facilities including alternative therapy treatment rooms and a quiet room are also being developed, with mood lighting.

Qualified counsellor, Ronagh O’Donnell, who specialises in addiction and trauma, will manage the new service in the company of a small team of other qualified local volunteer counsellors.

Speaking to the ‘Journal’ Ronagh said she was well aware, having worked at grass roots level locally, of the need for accessible and timely counselling at the point when people need it.

From Ballymagroarty, she trained as a counsellor and set up the counselling service at Dove House in the Bogside six years ago. “I worked in there for three years, just after I qualified - placements were hard to come by and I needed my 100 hours - and I set up the model that I am bringing here with a few wee tweaks,” she said.

A section of the premises upstairs which is being developed into counselling rooms, offices, a relaxation, quiet space and alternative therapy rooms.

A section of the premises upstairs which is being developed into counselling rooms, offices, a relaxation, quiet space and alternative therapy rooms.

“The service is very much needed. At Dove House referrals were coming in from everywhere and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s so many people,’ and it was a free service as well, we had no funding, I was just doing it myself. I love my job, I’m very passionate about it and I loved the time I spent there.”

Ronagh retrained after sustaining severe injuries in a car crash 16 years ago which has left her with disabilities. After working hard at counselling at Dove House for several years, she decided she needed she needed a break and took the decision to leave, before volunteering for different charity organisations locally. However, last year she decided that counselling was something that was badly needed and would be beneficial to local people and it was also something she really missed so, teaming up with others, they worked towards setting up the service.

“I still meet former clients and they are amazing people. You come to counselling, I’m not doing the work for you, you do the work. It is hard, but I’ll give you the space, I’ll walk along with you but I can’t do it for you. People I meet now say, ‘thank you so much,’ but I say to them, no thank you, you did the work.”

Ronagh said that based on her experience, prevalent issues locally included anxiety, depression, families struggling with addiction, bereavement and agrophobia.

Many of those presenting had latent issues they had dealt with but which re-emerged during the counselling sessions with some clients attending for a matter of weeks, others over several years.

“The new service is free and available to everyone over 16 and for any reason at all. It has it’s own entrance and if any of our counsellors cannot help, we will signpost you on to somewhere else. We will also be offering alternative therapies: reiki, Indian head massage, reflexology, mindfulness, that’s all free and there will be a lower price yoga class. That can be for people who maybe aren’t ready for counselling or for after counselling.”

Downstairs, the charity shop is now a firm fixture in the city centre. Having opened last June it offers previously owned goods, from large furniture items, unique, off beat, ornate and one-off pieces, clothes, jewellery and children’s toys at affordable prices. “We have a really informal atmosphere in here, it’s very relaxed,” Ronagh added.

Oak Counselling is currently on a waiting list for going through the process of charity status approval and until that is achieved, opportunities to apply for funding the service are limited. With no external funding to date, the proceeds from the shop and donations from the local community have proved, and will continue to prove, invaluable in developing the new counselling service.

“We are all volunteers, nobody gets paid,” Ronagh said.

The shop also highlights ‘Perfect Purrs,’ which seeks to help rehome, rescue and provide long-term care for cats in need locally. Ronagh’s daughter Shauna, volunteers with Oak raising both awareness and finance for the organisation.

Amanda Vincent, from the Pennyburn area, met Shauna and Ronagh through another local animal charity, St. Columb’s Animal Rescue and Rehoming, and decided to come in one day per week to help out, but is now there every day.

Ronagh said Amanda has proved invaluable since then in helping to run the store and in progressing the counselling service. So much so, that she has now been appointed the chair of the Board.

Amanda, who has previously been educated in psychology and law among other relevant areas, will herself begin training in counselling in April. She said she was well aware of the need for the service locally.

“I have a range of mental health illnesses; I have been waiting a year and a half for a referral to the Mental Health team. They say it’s about nine months, it has now been 18. A few years ago I was really bad to the point where I wasn’t leaving the house and it took me two months to get a referral, only because they had it in as urgent and that I needed to be seen straight away and it still talk two months.”

Ronagh said: “That’s why this is so important. It’s only people who have experience, who know what this is about and are very passionate about it and will help the charity and who have skills who are on the Board.”

Foyle SDLP MLA, Mark H. Durkan, will officially open the new centre on Monday and a ‘pamper day’ is planned from 11am to 3pm, with students from the North West Regional College offering two treatments for £10, all proceeds from which will go to the new service.

“It was purposefully done this way as Monday is known as ‘Black Monday’ when all the credit card bills come out,” Ronagh noted.

The new Oak Counselling service will run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10am to 5pm, Thursday 10am to 9pm and Friday is 10am to 5pm.

People can self-refer and pick up a form at reception or from the shop below.

The shop is open Monday to Saturday, 9.30pm to 5pm and volunteers will make deliveries and collections, and anything they can’t use in Oak Counselling is passed on to other local charity shops.