As the Aisling Centre in Enniskillen prepares to ring in the New Year on a positive note with its third annual Hope, Healing and Growth event on January 4, it will herald the start of an important milestone year for the Centre – its 30th anniversary.

Aisling is an Irish word meaning dream or vision and the dream of the Centre’s founding members was to address emotional needs by creating a safe and welcoming space in the heart of the community where people could find solace at difficult times in their lives.

“Opening a Centre dedicated to the promotion of positive mental health in Fermanagh 30 years ago was a bold and innovative move,” highlighted an Aisling Centre representative, who added: “Mental health was a difficult subject often shrouded in secrecy, misunderstanding and stigma and the benefits of counselling not always fully understood.”

For the founding members – three Sisters from Enniskillen Convent of Mercy, Sisters Mary Daly, Edel Bannon and the late Helena Hunt – whose dream has been grounded in reality - the objective was to open the door to people who felt they needed a “listening ear”.

Three decades on and the open door remains the Centre’s focus - ‘When you need someone to talk to… We are here to listen’.

Sister Edel Bannon, a native of Boho, in Co. Fermanagh, who is an Aisling Centre Director, was involved on the ground at the very beginning.

She recalls that the idea for the Centre came from Sister Mary Daly, who is the present Director of the Tara Centre in Omagh.

“The idea was to open doors and help people who needed help,” said Sister Edel, in reference to helping people who needed help in the area of counselling.

She explained that the Sisters of Mercy purchased the premises on Darling Street, and Aisling Centre opened in November 1990.

Sister Edel recollected that she and her fellow founder members were very conscious that they were three Religious Sisters and they wanted the centre to be accessible to everyone.

“We invited people from other traditions to work with us and they came on board. We formed a committee very early on.”

Within a relatively short time, the service was genuinely cross-community, both in terms of governance and the people accessing the services. That value of inclusivity is something that Aisling Centre continues to hold dear.

The idea for the coffee shop came up at the start in order that “people could come in for a cup of coffee and they could look around them before they expressed a need for counselling.”

Alongside, they ran well-received personal development courses.

“We were starting off with the idea of helping people, one to one, and hoping that would ripple into their families and into the communities,” said Sister Edel.

She reflected that the Aisling Centre became like a small hub and she looked back on early groups which began to use rooms at the centre including a statutory alcohol counselling service, Nexus and Relate. She also remembered that the early days of Women’s Aid met in the Centre. “We were enabling other little shoots to grow,” felt Sister Edel, who over the years has witnessed the growth which has taken place at Aisling Centre, where she said the provision of counselling has “grown mightily.”

“Demand is increasing all the time,” she said, adding: “There is a waiting list for the service.”

Sister Edel is thankful for the statutory funding received and that from other sources, while she is also deeply appreciative of the support received from the community.

“Every penny that comes in from fundraising, we use it for counselling,” she stressed.

In the last year Aisling Centre provided an average of 100 sessions of counselling per week.

Almost 30 years on, she admits they could not have envisaged what Aisling Centre has become today.

“It is very professionally managed and the counselling is so professional,” says Sister Edel, who believes that the Centre is “more needed now than ever because of the pressures of life. It is much more accepted that we all go through difficult times.”

Sister Edel describes the help being provided at Aisling Centre as “truly marvellous.”

Having set out with no ‘strategic plan’, she reflected: “If people came in with a need that was more than we could deal with we signposted them to where they could get help. Our philosophy was that people got help and they got the best person to provide that help.”

She concludes: “lt is wonderful to think that something which began with simply opening the door to people who felt they needed a listening ear has grown into the service that it is today. It is truly amazing.”

Sister Edel is now looking forward to their upcoming Hope, Healing and Growth well-being event, the brainchild of Aideen McGinley. The exciting programme on January 4, 2020, includes inspirational and keynote speakers, life stories and workshops. All funds raised go to Aisling Centre.