In 1996 I sat my first interview for a proper paid job. Walking from my flat in Lenadoon up the Stewartstown Road to the Dairy Farm I turned around twice to go home, not feeling I was good enough to fulfil the post of community groups advice worker. I came up with a thousand excuses in my head why I shouldn’t make a fool of myself by going to be interviewed for a real job. I got there half an hour early, sick, wishing I could crawl inside my own body.
I walked in front of the interviewers. On the panel was a beautiful woman from Making Belfast Work, Laura Leonard. Shaking, I began the presentation. I gained a little confidence from my own words making sense. After two pages I looked up from the acetates to try to gain eye contact with the panel. Laura Leonard gave me a wink. I’ve been told afterwards she gave all the interviewees a wink. That was the moment I decided to let them see me, relax a bit and, well, got the job. Laura Leonard’s wink is a moment that changed my life.
A week into the job I was sent to see if the Twinbrook Mothers and Babies group could do with a hand making an application to the Peace and Reconciliation fund. Mary Leonard who ran it met me and treated me like I was an oracle of all knowledge, when of course I couldn’t begin to scratch her deep knowledge of community development, how it works and why it needed to work better. She gave me such confidence within half an hour of meeting her. Little did she know while I was taking her knowledge and needs and turning it into an application form that I was dying to ask her if I could join her group with my 2year old child.
Later that year I met John Leonard, Laura’s dad, and Mary’s husband, in “the Lynx flat”. The Lynx project was a programme for youth at risk in Twinbrook. It used innovative intervention techniques before such restorative projects were fashionable. John was helping do up a house for the expanding project that was going to receive much needed Peace funding. John was funny, relaxed and completely supportive of the anxious workers trying to make the most of a very limited pot of money. I came to know that this Short Strand man brought those values and many more to Twinbrook, Belfast and everywhere he walked. He was one of those people who in challenging situations had solutions rather than problems.
This week the Leonards buried John after a cruel illness. He died too young having spent his lifetime sharing wisdom, caring and common sense.
At the requiem mass, the priest spoke of how John made friends easily and was so willing to help everyone in the community. John, and his family, provided resource to a community that was neglected and overlooked by authorities. As testimony to his standing, Gerry Adams dedicated his event during Féile an Phobail to John, hours after he had passed.
When John Leonard spoke to you, you listened and learned. All of the Leonards, Mary, Laura, Claire and John jnr will miss him deeply. As will so many more. We are diminished with his passing.