GAVIN Lowen is living with cerebral palsy. But by no means does it define him.
The movement disorder means the 12-year-old needs regular therapies and treatments to help correct his posture, increase mobility and promote physical development. And the best time to do that is as he grows.
Since the age of two, Gavin has been availing of those therapies and services, free of charge thanks to Enable Ireland — a body that helps people with disabilities achieve maximum independence and inclusivity.
“I don’t imagine where I’d be without them, they’ve done so much — I’ve been using their services in Ballintemple for 11 years, so it’s hard to say how much they’ve done for me, you’d be here all day I’d say,” Gavin said.
“I’ve had different people throughout my time helping me but everyone was as dedicated to me as the other one.”
Since 1954, the organisation has provided services such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, psychology and social work to children with disabilities from its Lavanagh Centre in Ballintemple — but it’s no longer fit for purpose.
Next Monday, October 7, a new state of the art centre will be officially opened in Curraheen, home to specialist services — feeding, assistive technology, spasticity and tone management, an upper limb assessment and orthopaedic clinic, hip and spinal surveillance, casting and GAIT analysis. It is amongst the best facilities in Europe, equipped with a hydrotherapy pool, therapy rooms, pre-school support services, family facilities, sensory rooms and an accessible playground. There’s a respite house for children on the same site — the first in Cork for children with physical disabilities.
“It’s divine, it’s surrounded by fields, they’re spoilt for choice they have so many therapy rooms and there’s a lovely sense of calm when you go in there,” Gavin’s mum Ger said.
“It is beautiful, it’s spacious and they have everything you can imagine. When you go out there you won’t be looking for parking, there won’t be any more cramped spaces, tiny rooms.
“It’s a beautiful environment and there’s plenty of room to get around.”
As well as offering such services, free of charge, Enable Ireland helps guide families who are faced with the challenges that come with living with a disability — navigating the health system, applying for aids and equipment — as well as providing administrative assistance and emotional support.
It’s a service the Lowen family have relied upon since Gavin’s diagnosis.
“I never take it for granted,” Ger said.
“It’s a shock to the system when (you realise) you’re a parent of someone with a condition.
“We were very lucky to be attached to Enable Ireland because Gavin has received numerous services from them.
“He started off doing an early childhood class which was wonderful — that was a kind of pre-school where the parents stayed with the kids for the hour, which was lovely because we were all in similar situations.
“He went on then to do two years pre-school with Anne Coughlan, who was the head of the education service and she was fantastic.
“It was exactly the same in an academic capacity, but trained professionals were there on hand to help with anything to do with their physical needs and motor skills.
“He did two years there and he adored it. It was a brilliant foundation and prepared you for mainstream school.
“They helped you move along then to primary school — but it wasn’t just the physiotherapy side of it, it was the psychology side of it too, because they’d have to prepare reports with the occupational therapist to say ‘this child is coming, these are their needs’.”
Inspired by Gavin’s diagnosis, Ger returned to college and now works as a special needs assistant in a Midleton school.
“You see the benefits of being attached to a body like Enable Ireland, they’re fantastic.
“I know children with varying extra needs who aren’t lucky enough to be attached to a body like Enable Ireland are paddling their own canoe.
“Once you’re involved you’re so lucky, because you have someone fighting your corner.
“If you didn’t have that you’d be all on your own, and apart from the financial aspect you’d be on waiting lists, forking out yourself, but once you become involved everything is free.”
Cerebral palsy is usually detected in early childhood. Often babies with it do not sit, crawl, walk or roll over as early as other children of similar age.
Gavin was born prematurely and so when his physio made a home visit at 18 months, she noticed he wasn’t quite sitting correctly.
Tests confirmed he had the condition.
“I didn’t even know what that was, it was an awful shock to our system,” Ger said.
The family was referred to Enable Ireland.
“He, thankfully, got in to the system very early, so we were very lucky.”
Signs and symptoms of CP vary but often include stiff muscles, poor coordination, muscle weakness, tremors, hearing, and vision, speech or swallowing problems.
Treatments can include physical, speech and occupational therapies.
While Gavin is growing, it’s vital that he takes advantage of correcting muscles as they develop because once he gets older it will be too late. He wears orthotics, casts on his legs and special clothing such as ‘dynamic shorts’ to improve his posture.
Treatment isn’t easy but he seems to take it in his stride as he knows it will benefit him.
“You have to, you can always look down and say, “Well, what do I do now like? I’m different, but what can I do?
“You just keep going, and do the things you want to do, no matter what’s holding you back.
“The hardest thing about having CP is that you can’t outgrow it, it’s knowing that I’ll have it for my whole life.
“But you just need to keep your head down and do what you need to do and it’ll be better.”
Enable Ireland has five service locations in Cork — its children’s service and respite house at the Lavanagh Centre in Curraheen, an adult service centre in Little Island, a hub for adults in Carrigaline, a respite house in Ladysbridge, and a residential home in Blackrock, to support independent community living for adults with disabilities.
“Cork city’s two Enable Ireland charity shops, on Oliver Plunkett Street and North Main Street, support the disability services across all centres which means Gavin, and kids just like him, can continue to get the help they need.
Ger says there’s no fear of Gavin, his strong mind won’t stop him from “reaching for the stars”.
The sports mad pre-teen has a list of hobbies as long as your arm. Ger reckons he’s an entrepreneur in the making, who’ll be a millionaire by the time he’s 19.
“He’s constantly thinking outside the box, he’s made perfume that he’s sold to all the men around the park.” He’s also composed songs, written scripts as well as a series of more than 20 books that Ger hopes to have published.
He is one of 8,500 people using Enable Ireland’s services across 15 counties in Ireland.
Services see expert teams help people plan for each life stage, by providing knowledge and supports needed to make informed decisions.
Enable Ireland set a fund-raising target of €7.5million to build the state of the art Children’s Services Centre in Curraheen and significant support from Cork people and businesses and a €2 million Capital Allocation from the HSE allowed them to do that.
The centre still needs €1 million to help finish the work.
Online donations can be made at www.enableireland.ie/donate