I never envisaged my son in paid employment... but now he's so happy, says Cork mum

Cobh mother Olga Meade never envisaged her son, who has autism, would be in paid employment — but thanks to the Cope Foundation’s Ability@Work scheme he and many others are, writes CHRIS DUNNE
I never envisaged my son in paid employment... but now he's so happy, says Cork mum
Thomas Meade with co-worker, Monika Sedzick at Lidl Ballyvolane.

WITH his ready smile and good looks, as well as his obliging manner, it’s no wonder people enjoy going shopping at Lidl in Ballyvolane where Thomas Meade is eager to welcome them.

He had good reason to smile the day I met him.

“Thomas got his first pay cheque in the door!” says proud mum of two, Olga, from Cobh.

Olga is so proud of Thomas, who recently turned 21. He received a diagnosis of autism 19 years ago and is supported by the Cope Foundation and by his job coach, Daragh Forde.

Thomas is taking part in Abilty@Work — a specialist employment service linking employers and people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism. The programme assists job-seekers at key transition points between education, training and employment.

Daragh is proud of Thomas too.

“Thomas always loved supermarkets!” he says. “He was always diligent in the shops, putting products back in order, stacking them the right way on the shelves where they belonged. He’s a natural!”

Thomas Meade at work in Lidl Ballyvolane.
Thomas Meade at work in Lidl Ballyvolane.

Daragh encouraged Thomas’s employment prospects using the 5-stage Supported Employment Model; Client Engagement, Vocational Profiling, Job Finding, Employer Engagement and On and Off the Job Support.

“We match the person, aged between 18 and 29, who are supported by Cope Foundation, to the job,” says Daragh.

“Job Clubs provide the training to assist people ready for work, to develop skills like form-filling and interview skills which they can then use to find jobs.”

The idea that autism can sometimes entail strength and talents as much as difficulties is slowly gaining ground.

The sense of progress is obvious, especially among Cork employers like Lidl, The Mater Private Hospital Mahon, Dukes Coffee Company, Sodexo, and Café Vélo, who benefit from disability awareness training for their staff while gaining a greater insight and understanding around disability.

Thomas became a team player at Lidl in Ballyvolane from day one.

“From the first day he went to work shadowing another Lidl employee, learning the ropes; they loved him,” says Daragh.

“Everyone was impressed with his skills.”

Olga, who always knew her son’s talents and the extent of his potential, never envisaged him earning a living.

“Five or ten years ago, I’d never have envisaged Thomas in paid employment,” she says.

“Personally, I could not believe that would happen. I was dumb-founded!

“The rewards are massive. Having a bit of independence is a big thing, his involvement in society in general as a valued individual makes us really happy.

“Now, with the Ability@Work initiative, other parents who have children on the autism spectrum have a glimmer of hope and they can look forward to job opportunities for their children too.

“It is about breaking down barriers; seeing the ability not the disability,” says Olga.

“It’s about having a purpose in life.” 

What does the man himself think of his great achievement securing employment?

“I am so happy!” he says, beaming.

Olga reflects back to the time of her son’s diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and the numerous assessments.

“That time invokes an automatic physical churn in my stomach, tightness in my chest and acceleration of my heartbeat as if it were only yesterday,” says Olga.

“It was 19 years ago. The dreaded word ‘referral’ was mentioned and swiftly followed by the terrifying ‘autism’ word.

“But we could not avoid the inevitable. Contentment comes from the ease and flexibility with which we move through.”

Olga and her husband, Tom, moved through the motions to support their son as best they could.

“It was constant advocacy, fighting for services,” says Olga.

Every mother who has a son understands the bitter-sweet transition from boy to man.

“I felt a sadness as I witnessed him grow physically from a gangly pre-teen to a very handsome young man,” says Olga.

“He has gone from looking up to me, to towering over me whilst giving me a hug, my head now resting on his chest, just as his rested on mine yesterday. Thomas is very affectionate.”

Thomas Meade with manager of Lidl Ballyvolane Seamus Hogan.
Thomas Meade with manager of Lidl Ballyvolane Seamus Hogan.

Mother and son share a rare bond.

“His best days are my best days — his worst days are my worst days!”

Olga never knew there would be days like this.

“The excitement when his first pay cheque came in the post! We couldn’t believe it!”

They couldn’t believe something else.

“Thomas paid tax, just like every other Irish citizen!”

He is a diligent worker, conscientious and responsible.

“He’s up in time for work in the mornings, Monday and Wednesday,” says Olga.

“He gets himself ready and his uniform is his own responsibility. He makes his own lunch and off he goes. He is very organised.”

Thomas often does overtime. Olga laughs.

“He was shopping in our local Lidl in Cobh with his dad one day.

“He started carting all the empty boxes on the floor off to the stockroom!”

Daragh knows Thomas is an enthusiastic employee.

“He was doing pro-bono work,” says Daragh.

“Looking for a bit of overtime!”

His employers, Lidl, have a deep appreciation of the attributes that Thomas brings to their work. His infectious enthusiasm adds to the feel-good factor that the company promotes.

“Lidl gave Thomas individual training before he started work, in manual handling and other skills,” says Daragh.

“He likes wearing his head-phones and that was no problem at work.

“He just loves going to work,” adds Olga.

“The amount of people congratulating him is amazing. It is the result of all the support, and the result of getting the right support.”

Thomas always had good support growing up.

“Quiva J, our assistance guide dog, became part of our family for 13 years,” says Olga.

“Getting the dog from the Irish Guide Dogs was a big turning point for us.”

As well as being an animal lover, Thomas likes listening to music, swimming, bowling, going camping with his dad, and cycling.

He is a mighty fast typist as well.

“His fingers go at the rate of knots on the keyboard!” says Olga.

She and Thomas are busy making plans on how to spend his first pay cheque.

“Thomas wants to go to the Inchydoney Hotel for a weekend,” says Olga. “He loves the pool there.”

He loves just being like everybody else.

“His older sister graduated from college and she is working now. Thomas loves being just like her,” says Olga.

“Now he has a job just like everybody else. It is a great boost for him and for his self-esteem.”

Amy Begley at the bread counter in Lidl in Kanturk.
Amy Begley at the bread counter in Lidl in Kanturk.

Another person enjoying the Ability@Work Programme is Amy Begley — she isn’t just double-jobbing, she’s treble-jobbing.

“Working on my art is my first love,” says the 24-year- old, who started work in Lidl, Kanturk, last November, when she took part in the Ablity@Work Programme.

“I’m loving that too!” she says.

“I was well ready for interview for the Lidl role with the support from my Job Coach, Noelle Twohig.

“The Job Club was a great help getting me employment. We linked up with Lidl in Kanturk where I did my induction. I got on very well from the start.”

She was a popular choice for another job, as poster girl for the Ablity@Work information brochure too.

“Yes. I got that job too!” she says, smiling.

Then she became a wage-earner.

“I spent a day in Lidl in Kanturk shadowing another worker there to see what it was like,” says Amy.

“I’ve always been interested in retail and I loved the experience straight away.

“My manager and my co-workers are really supportive at work.”

Amy loves the variety that her job in Lidl provides.

“I work weekends and evenings,” she says.

“Working on the tills, I’m gaining really good experience in customer skills. I’m a very organised person by nature so the routine and regular hours suit me.

“After the first week, settling in and getting used to the shop,I signed a six month contract, which can be renewed after the probation period, which suits me.”

Getting regular wages suits her too!

“The extra money is a real bonus,” she agrees.

“I can do more food shopping and I have more choices. I make my own lunch every day with fresh salad ingredients from Lidl.”

Amy manages her money wisely.

“I love spending it and I love putting it away!”

She has spent more time travelling.

“I’ve been on a couple of trips to Switzerland, which is amazing,” says Amy.

Her illustrated book, Mouse’s Great Adventure, is amazing too.

“My passion is art,” says Amy.

“I studied Animation in St John’s College; and art is my passion. My dream job would be to work in the world of art.” No doubt Amy, with her talent and excellent work ethic, will make her dream come true.

This lady has her whole life ahead of her, full of promise for a bright future in retail and in art; the two things that she loves.

Amy recently enjoyed the Breaking Down Barriers Ball hosted by Lidl on September 20 in the Clayton Silversprings Hotel. The event raised money towards Ability@Work Programme and Jigsaw’s One Good School Initiative.

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