Driving over the Glenshane, looking at the houses dotted along the countryside, you would never know there’s a thriving community nestled at the foothills of the Sperrins.
The fact ‘The Benedy’ is such a vibrant community is largely down to the tireless work of volunteers responsible for Benedy Community Association.
The association started with a group of local residents who met in a farmer’s shed in 1996.
One of the founding members, Dolores O’Kane, said they felt there was a need for something in the community which, while close to Dungiven, was isolated.
“We thought we would try and improve the life and well being of the people in the Benedy,” said Dolores. After a while, the group upgraded their meeting place to a mushroom house. There was never a need to get dressed up for meetings there because, according to Dolores, “you always had to get a wash when you went home”.
After a while, they moved to a cottage where fundraising started and activities took place.
“We did a survey to determine the needs of the community and the results showed people wanted a meeting place, so we started to work together to get the centre,” says Dolores. “We couldn’t get planning permission along the road because of it being an area of outstanding natural beauty.”
They started fundraising and raised enough to buy two acres of land.
The group couldn’t get planning permission for a brick building, however, so they made do with a prefabricated structure. That was in 1999 and, in February 2000, the Association officially opened the building.
“That was a big day and the community came together for the opening day and we haven’t looked back since,” says Dolores.
Volunteer, Patricia Kelly, says: “It’s the community.”
Take, for example, the recent Christmas party. Santa handed out 114 parcels, while up to 100 adults enjoyed some festive fayre.
In all, there are 180 families who set foot through the association’s door, from the Ponderosa to the 30mph limit to Dungiven.
“You wouldn’t think there is that many houses, but there are,” says Dolores. “It’s gone from strength to strength.”
One of the most important functions of the association is reducing isolation, and not just among older residents, but for young families too.
Their ‘Jo Jingles’ camp for young mothers during the summer is booked solid with young mums and their kids coming together to socialise.
The Benedy has strong farming roots and the association reflects that, working closely with the farming community, The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and Greenmount College.
They hold information meetings on a variety of issues and hold classes including Pilates and Zumba. They also have a luncheon club, a youth club and a gardening club.
“It is used so much, it’s really unbelievable, and it’s generation after generation coming back,” says Dolores. “We’re into the fourth generation now. I saw a lady the other night with great grandchildren coming. It’s wonderful.”
The group receives some funding through small grants and, along with some funding they get from hiring out the centre, they say it keeps them ticking over.
Both Patricia and Dolores believe the association and the centre are an important part of the community, where people have come to hold significant events in their lives. It’s been used by wedding parties, for lunches after funerals and birthday parties.
“We have 40 volunteers and we couldn’t manage without them,” says Dolores. “I do think more and more the community appreciates us because they come back for more.”
Both volunteers would love to get more funding, so they could have a full time paid employee in the centre five days a week.
“We really want to keep it going,” says Dolores.
“We are very open and transparent in what we do because, if we weren’t, people wouldn’t come in.
“We get great support from the community and our committee is really good.
“We have super support and we want to thank all the people who have come in and out.
“I counted one year, and we had 7,000 people and I’m sure we missed a lot.”