Gaelic Games central to the Live Life Lisa Orsi Foundation
By Cian O’Connell
“We are honouring her legacy plus we are eternally grateful to the Asian Gaelic clubs for being there when we needed them,” Dennis Orsi says about the help and assistance received during a harrowing time for his family.
Lisa Orsi, 22, had been thoroughly enjoying a stint in Singapore. A passion for football had been rekindled with Singapore Lions and when she died tragically following a trek in Indonesia, the Orsi’s received valuable support.
“We really, really needed them,” Dennis Orsi remarks eight years later. “We will be eternally grateful to the GAA for helping Lisa when she might have been having a bad day. Maybe she never had a bad day, I don't think she did, but certainly when we needed help to bring Lisa home, they were there.
“They got us sorted out with hotels, transport, financially they were fantastic, they took us out for dinners, they arranged fundraising for us. The GAA were there, they dropped everything for anything we needed. I'll be eternally grateful to the GAA.”
In the intervening years Orsi has immersed himself in the GAA world. The fact that the FRS GAA World Games will take place in Derry in two months is a source of pride. He saw first hand what international units of the association can do.
The Live Life Lisa Orsi Foundation has been established with trips to China and South Africa organised for young people from Derry. Memories were made and opportunities provided. “The international element of the GAA cannot fail,” Orsi says, as plans for a trip to Cambodia in 2024 are being finalised.
“We have this programme running this year on the Cambodian thing, and we have young protestants involved. We were finding it so difficult to engage with young protestants because we were always labelled as a catholic organisation.
“Lisa was always a young person, who enjoyed playing football, enjoyed meeting people and travelling. This is the first year we engaged with young protestants, they will be taking part in the volunteering with the World Games.
“That is part of the contract they have signed up to, that they will be taking part in the volunteering end of things. That is a massive step forward for Derry. I remember four years ago bringing up the idea about asking Derry to apply for the World Games, they were a bit dubious about it.
“Then you keep the niggle going, keep talking to people. When somebody said we'd give it a go I was over the moon, but I had to make sure that they understood it had to be cross community.
“They said to me they have always been cross community. Now, looking at it, they have always been cross community. They just had the same problem I had for the past five years, they just couldn't engage with the protestant community. There is nothing to be frightened of. They are realising that now.”
Orsi is optimistic about the future, that people can collaborate in a meaningful way. “We do have a couple of young guys, who come from a strong loyalist background,” he adds.
“We have given them the option because we don't want them falling out with their father or brothers. We have given them the option, they will give it a go is what they are saying. Having a barbeque with the Cambodian team at the Mekong River might just be the straw that broke the camels back for them.
“We treat them like adults. We are facilitators more than anything else. We want them to understand that travelling is a gift. If you're travelling get involved with a GAA club because they will look after you.”
Na Piarsaigh Doire Trasna CLG have been huge supporters of the Live Life Lisa Orsi Foundation. In 2016 the first trip to China was arranged. The cost was significant, but Orsi highlights the contribution of people in Derry.
“In the local Gaelic club a good friend, I approached Mark O'Doherty. He said it sounds fantastic, we didn't intend going that year, but with the amount of interest shown, Mark said we'd give it a go,” Orsi recalls.
“We signed up 40 young gaels and 10 mentors. We rallied with it, we fundraised and Mark probably got the elite of long term civil servants, who understood.
“The secretary, at the time, of Na Magha, a hurling club in Derry, Sharon McCullagh, was outstanding in organising and getting insurance and getting the clubs involved.
“We picked the right people, who understood. We always ran on the basis that we didn't just want to pick the best players, we wanted to pick the best club members. That is the way we ran things. We wanted the people that stayed behind and tidied up or who made a sandwich for a visiting team.
“That is what we were interested in and is what we got. The logistics were absolutely massive. We wanted the young people to realise that life isn't a gift, that they had to pull their weight too.
“A lot of them fundraised some money themselves and we fundraised about half of the cost of the China trip and something similar for the South Africa - about half the money per person.”
It was a rewarding experience in so many ways. “They had learned so much, they really ate up the culture of Asia,” Orsi says.
“I had nothing to do with that, I wouldn't take any credit for that, I would absolutely thank, eternally, Mark O'Doherty and Sharon McCullagh, and the rest of the team behind them, all volunteers in the GAA.
“Mark was the chairperson of Pearses at the time, he had my back always. I might have come up with ideas, but I wasn't from a GAA family. We weren't then, but we are now.”
Inevitably Orsi’s mind will remember moments and events. Important links, though, still exist, and Orsi wanted to help others. “It was nearly as simple as this, we moved into our house about 18 years ago, and when Lisa was small we drove by our local shop, a bunch of lads were outside,” Orsi explains.
“Then 10 years later we were driving Lisa down to bury her, the same bunch of lads were standing outside the shop. They had no aim. The opportunity for them to join our local club now, Pearses, was always there, but they maybe weren't encouraged enough by family.
“Our club now is just superb, they are so open handed, I think they are taking a bit of Lisa's story.”
It also gave Orsi a renewed purpose too. Missions could still be accomplished. That drive and desire his daughter demonstrated will always matter. “We put these lads on to a bus at Sainsbury's car park one morning and then 30 hours later we were standing at the Great Wall of China,” he says.
“Two or three of them had never been out of the city, they were crying saying they thought they'd never get this opportunity. All we asked them to do was to join a Gaelic club.
“Now we have kids working in China, a couple in Abu Dhabi, we have put them through TEFL so they are teaching English as a foreign language. We have built their confidence and this year we are running a programme. We are meeting up with a Cambodian club taking them for a couple of days next February.
“The foundation helped me deal with Lisa's death. It kept me busy, but we run it strictly on Lisa's life lesson. The way she was, that is the way we have ran the foundation, the basis of Lisa's life.”
Initially Lisa played for Ardmore in Derry and featured a couple of times at inter-county level. “Ardmore noticed her talent and they put her forward for trials with the ladies county team,” Orsi says. “She only played a game or two. That was at senior level. Then the normal things - she drifted away and started doing her own thing.
“She went to Manchester and joined the local club in Salford University. It fell apart soon after she joined so she went away doing other bits and pieces. Her Gaelic career ended about three times, unfortunately.”
Far from home in Singapore, though, she launched a sporting comeback. “She phoned me within three or four days, she found a really strong, powerful Gaelic club, I said don't even think about it, just go for it,” her proud Dad recalls. “They were a powerhouse as far as confidants and someone being there for you. So she went for her first training and it went on from there. She started travelling with them to the Asian Games, the South Asian Gaelic Games, and to Australia.
"I think she started on their thirds and ended up on the main ladies team fairly quickly. That took her on to Kuala Lumpur where they won. She really hadn't played in about five years by that stage. Singapore won the ladies senior cup which is now called the Lisa Orsi Cup.”
In Singapore she saw a different side to sport and what it can entail. It was much broader than a match. Being on a team was something to embrace again.
“In Derry it is a very strong catholic sport, but when she travelled to Singapore she realised there were Muslims playing, young protestant girls playing, and she really loved that whole idea - it was multi denominational,” Orsi adds. “People were there, if you were feeling a bit down or a bit homesick, the GAA was there.
“The social end of it was fantastic. After she had her accident when we arrived her team mates and club members were standing in the hospital. A couple of them came to the airport to pick us up, I realised what an organisation.
“No child should travel anywhere without at least having the option or the door open to them. The whole foundation came from that - Lisa's story. We have taken 50 kids to China, a couple of years ago we took 30 from the city to Sowetto in South Africa.”
Cambodia is the next destination for the foundation. “We will get there. We manage it - somehow,” he laughs.” Orsi and his colleagues will find a way.