Cork's Down Syndrome Centre: A place where children can thrive

Families who use the Cork Down Syndrome Centre tell IRENE HALPIN LONG about the supports they receive there
Cork's Down Syndrome Centre: A place where children can thrive
Ella, Sadie and Lucy O'Brien.

“A PLACE to thrive...” That is the motto of The Down Syndrome Centre, Cork, located on Forge Hill.

In order for a child to reach their potential, they need access to resources in the form of therapies and intervention programmes, especially if they have extra or specific needs. A range of therapies and activities are made available to children with Down Syndrome at the centre.

Hayley Moore works as an occupational therapist there, helping children to develop important skills like dressing, writing, self-feeding and play skills. She also provides advice to parents on areas such as sleep and toilet training.

She said: “Families attending the centre can access preschool, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, parent support coffee mornings, and sibling camps.

“Unfortunately, children with additional needs in Ireland often have to wait on public services lists, whereas in our centre, we have no waiting lists and can offer therapy and support immediately.”

Here we talk to some of the families who use the Cork Down Syndrome Centre.

Emily, Henry and Beth.
Emily, Henry and Beth.

MEETING OTHERS ON THE SAME JOURNEY

Henry O’Connell, from Killeagh, is six years old and attends the centre with his mum, Emma, along with his siblings, Beth and Emily and dad, Ger.

Mum Emma said “The centre is fantastic for early intervention therapies, which are vital as they make such a difference in those early years.

“The centre is also like a central hub for peer support amongst parents. I have made some great friends through the centre.

“The centre also provides support for new parents. Having a new baby with Down Syndrome can feel so overwhelming. Having someone to talk to, that is on the same journey as you, can make a huge difference, especially in those early weeks and months.”

Henry and Emma.
Henry and Emma.

The family started using the centre when it opened its doors in 2017. Henry attended the SKIP programme (Special Kids Intervention Programme) which is a play-based programme for children aged 0-5 years.

A SKIP session targets all areas of each child’s development, such as speech and language, fine motor skills, gross motor skills and social skills. Henry also attends occupational therapy sessions at the centre.

Emma said: “Henry loves the sensory room at the centre. He has sensory regulation issues, and the sensory room is a safe, calm space, where he can crash in the ball pool or look at the bubble tube or play with the lights. He loves meeting the therapists there. All of the staff have been so good to him.”

Pamela Healy and son Joey.
Pamela Healy and son Joey.

A PLACE TO THRIVE

Two-year-old Joey is from Douglas and attends the centre with his mum, Pamela Healy and his dad, Eddie. Pamela started following the centre’s Facebook page while pregnant with Joey. She said: “We knew Joey was going to have Down Syndrome. At the end of my pregnancy, I saw the centre was advertising baby massage which I really wanted to do.

“Joey was a month old when we first attended. We loved it. I met three mams in the class and they told me about the Whatsapp group which I joined and I am still part of.

Joey with his great uncle Pat Ahern.
Joey with his great uncle Pat Ahern.

“The centre means so much to our family. It is a place for Joey to thrive and we have made amazing friends from going there.”

Pamela describes Joey as “a social little man”. He attends SKIP classes with his friend, 18-month-old Sadie O’ Brien, from Youghal. Sadie attends the centre with her mum, Sally Flanagan, her dad, Patrick and sisters, Ella, age 9, and Lucy, age 2.

Sally connected with other mums using the centre on social media before Sadie was born. She and Patrick had received a pre-natal diagnosis that Sadie would have Down Syndrome.

Sadie and Sally attended Sing and Sign classes at the centre. It gave Sally a chance to meet other mothers whose babies have Down Syndrome.

The centre not only helps Sadie. It is also a vital support and place of fun and interaction for Ella and Lucy. Ella goes to sibling camps at the Centre. Lucy and Sadie are 11 months apart — ‘Irish twins’ — and attend some of the classes together.

Ella, Sadie and Lucy O'Brien with dad Patrick and mum Sally.
Ella, Sadie and Lucy O'Brien with dad Patrick and mum Sally.

Sally said: “Lucy was one and a half coming to Sing and Sign with me and Sadie [at the centre]. Now, she can use Lámh (the manual sign system used by children and adults with intellectual disability and communication needs in Ireland) because she has been going to the classes with Sadie. She can communicate with her sister from this early age. It is so beneficial to the whole family.”

LIFE DURING THE PANDEMIC

Lockdown due to the Covid-19 restrictions has been both a worrying and positive time for the families who avail of the centre’s resources on a regular basis.

Since lockdown, Sadie and Sally have been missing the human interaction offered at the centre but tune into the regular Zoom classes that the therapists at the centre arrange.

Sally said: “We’ve built up these brilliant relationships and it is hard for them [small children] to get used to new people so it’s important to keep the contact up.”

Emma said: “We are coping OK. Some days are easier than others, I must admit. It’s difficult trying to home-school. I do feel guilty that Henry is regressing though. He finds it difficult to sit still so doing any table top work at home is difficult. But there have been positives.

“Being at home all the time has given me time to toilet train him and he is doing really well with that. He can also dress himself now too.”

Pamela agreed the pandemic has brought challenges, but they have been trying to make the most of this time.

She said: “Coping with the lockdown, like so many other people, was hard; not being able to see people, call to grandparents but we are really embracing the special time we have together. We had so much fun family time together which really was fantastic as we are all so busy usually. I will take that away from the lockdown — making more time for us and doing much more together as a family.”

FUNDING

The charity is run by volunteers and receives no government funding. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, like other charities, the centre has lost out on a lot of fundraising opportunities.

Ballymaloe Foods are helping out by running a fund-raising raffle with a fantastic prize of a family break to Center Parcs, Ireland, plus €500 spending money, to raise funds for this centre. Ballymaloe Foods were keen to assist a number of charities during the Covid-19 crisis.

Hayley’s sister, Claire, works for Ballymaloe Foods and explained the amazing work done by the staff and families, so the business decided to help support them.

Gary Hanrahan is the marketing manager at Ballymaloe Foods. He said: “We were very conscious that a lot of charities were missing out on much needed fundraisers due to the current climate.

“Down Syndrome Centre, Cork, are a very well-known charity who do fantastic work, helping children develop from a very early age which is vital for their development.

“There was also a personal connection as Clare Moore (Digital Marketing Executive), is the sister of Hayley who works there. We have set a target of €7,000 which I believe with the kind donations of the public we can surpass.”

The families that use the Centre are keen to encourage the public to support it by donating at least €4 via the raffle (entry details below).

Emma said: “It is a relatively new charity in Cork and in its short few years has achieved so much, providing services for young children with Down Syndrome and their families.

“We want the centre to continue to provide services and peer support for our children and for the new babies with Down Syndrome that are born every year in Cork. Raising funds is the only way that we can do this.”

Pamela hopes people will support the centre. She said: “Because of places like the centre doing so much for Joey and his friends, his future looks bright.”

Sally said: “It is so important that the children at the centre have access to the therapies they need to thrive, for their development, to give them the best start possible.”

For details of the fundraiser organised by Ballymaloe Foods see ballymaloefoods.ie

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