Rock your socks off for Down Syndrome Centre

Ahead of World Down Syndrome Day, IRENE HALPIN LONG visits Cork Down Syndrome Centre to chat with local families
Rock your socks off for Down Syndrome Centre
Claire Geary from Ballyphehane with her son Finn Ebzery Geary, at the Down Syndrome Centre Cork on Forge Hill in advance of the 'Rock Your Funky Socks Day' fundraiser, due to take place on March 21st. Picture: David Keane.

WE all have at least one pair of bright socks in our drawer that rarely get a day out because they are too colourful or are festooned with cartoons and phrases like Super Dad or World’s Greatest Mom.

Well, World Down Syndrome Day falls on Thursday, March 21, and parents and children from The Down Syndrome Centre, Cork, are inviting you to ‘Rock your Funky Socks’ to raise awareness of Down Syndrome.

You and your friends and colleagues at work or at school can show your support by wearing garish socks, odd socks or colourful tights and making a donation to the centre, located on Forge Hill, Cork.

Joanne Hegarty of the Cork centre explains the concept of wearing funky socks on World Down Syndrome Day.

“People with Down Syndrome are born with an extra copy of chromosome number 21. This extra chromosome 21 makes people with Down Syndrome look and learn a little differently. Socks are shaped like chromosomes.

“The idea behind Rock your Funky socks is that we can all wear different socks, just like we all have different chromosomes but, essentially, we are all the same, despite our differences.”

Joanne is mum to three children, Kate, aged five, Olivia, aged four, and James, aged three. Olivia has Down Syndrome and she and her siblings have been attending The Down Syndrome Centre at Forge Hill for two years.

“The centre is great,” says Joanne “because all the children can come here. We are very much a family centre. It’s not just for the child with special needs. We try to include siblings and extended family members so that everyone feels supported.”

Joanne explains why inclusion is important.

“You don’t want one of your children feeling different. I love all my three kids equally and I want to do my best for all of them. Olivia needs a bit more help. It is nice that she can come here with her brother and sister on Saturdays.”

The Down Syndrome Centre was set up in Cork two years ago by a group of parents who felt there were few places for parents to go with their new-born babies who were diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

Joanne and Olivia Hegarty from Ballynoe, at the Down Syndrome Centre Cork on Forge Hill.Picture: David Keane
Joanne and Olivia Hegarty from Ballynoe, at the Down Syndrome Centre Cork on Forge Hill.Picture: David Keane

Joanne says: “It is so important for new parents to meet other parents who have been in their situation. Talking to others really helps. As well as providing support to parents, we run early intervention programmes for the children, along with speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and art therapy.

“The ethos of the centre is ‘a place to thrive’. It’s vital that our children have access to these types of therapies from an early age so each child can reach their potential and become the best they can possibly be.”

Claire Geary’s son, Finn, is ten weeks old. She and her partner, Brad, found out their son had Down Syndrome immediately after his birth.

Claire says: “Initially, Finn’s diagnosis came as a shock to us. When you are thinking about the newborn you have yet to meet, you don’t think about them having any health issues or complications.

“I also felt upset because I was worried about how people would treat Finn as he gets older. I don’t want anyone to treat him differently because he has Down Syndrome.”

Since Finn’s birth, Claire and Brad have had fantastic support from family and close friends.

When he was six weeks old, Claire contacted the Down Syndrome Centre. “The support from the other parents here has been amazing. Everyone sent lovely messages of congratulations on the birth of our baby boy.”

Claire says: “We accept Finn has Down Syndrome but that’s just one part of him. He is a perfect little baby boy. He simply has an extra chromosome. He is the same as any other baby and deserves the same opportunities as any other little baby. This is why the Down Syndrome Centre is so important. It helps children thrive.”

Paul Leahy and Liz Kyte have two children, Matthew, aged nine, and Evie, aged four. Evie has been attending the centre for two years. Like Claire and Brad, Paul and Liz found out their daughter had Down Syndrome shortly after she was born.

“It was a surprise to find out our daughter had Down Syndrome,” says Paul. “You don’t expect a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. It takes a while to accept it. A little further down the line, you embrace it, but it does take time.”

Evie was born with a hole in her heart and underwent heart surgery as a baby in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin.

Paul says: “In her first year, she had a lot of medical check-ups and tests. This was an emotional time for us, as parents. You can feel over-burdened by all the medical matters and dealing with services that you need to access to help your child. But, thankfully, once Evie’s heart surgery was complete, she didn’t have any other significant health issues and our trips to hospitals eased off.”

Paul and Evie Leahy from Glasheen, at the Down Syndrome Centre Cork on Forge Hill in advance of the 'Rock Your Funky Socks Day' fundraiser, due to take place on March 21st. Picture: David Keane
Paul and Evie Leahy from Glasheen, at the Down Syndrome Centre Cork on Forge Hill in advance of the 'Rock Your Funky Socks Day' fundraiser, due to take place on March 21st. Picture: David Keane

Paul says that Evie’s diagnosis of Down Syndrome has led to him becoming a more empathetic person and even more accepting of people’s differences.

“Evie is like any other four-year-old girl. She loves to paint, sometimes on paper, sometimes on the wall. At the moment, she is very interested in clothes and dressing up. She is full of energy and loves swimming.

“Evie is doing so well. She’s benefited greatly from the occupational therapy and speech and language therapy here at the Down Syndrome Centre.”

There are a lot of myths surrounding Down Syndrome that parents of children with Down Syndrome want to tear down and replace with facts and better understanding.

“You’ll hear people say that ‘God only gives special children to special people’ or that ‘people with Down Syndrome are happy all the time’, says Joanne.

“Children with Down Syndrome are not just a diagnosis. They are more than that. They are like any other child. Down Syndrome is part of them but it does not define them.” Paul says,

“Myths and stereotypes are not helpful. Every person has a range of emotions. No- one is happy all the time, whether you have Down Syndrome or not. Just because a person looks happy a lot of the time doesn’t mean the person doesn’t have challenges in their life. It is important to break these stereotypes because they place limitations on people.”

Like Evie, Olivia has benefitted from the early intervention programmes that are run at the centre.

Joanne says: “Communication has been one of Olivia’s biggest challenges.”

The centre provides training to families in Lámh — the manual sign system used by children and adults with intellectual disability and communication needs in Ireland. All of Joanne’s family have learnt sign language so they can communicate better with Olivia.

Joanne says: “Olivia also attends a brilliant mainstream pre-school near our home. All her classmates and teachers have learnt some sign language to help her communicate and aid in her development.”

Joanne urges people to “look past the diagnosis”. She says: “When I was young, we didn’t get a chance to mix with people who had special needs. Life is changing for the better. We all want to feel included, despite our differences. Our children, whether they have Down Syndrome or not, all interact with each other. It’s this type of inclusion and acceptance that I want for Olivia.”

The Down Syndrome Centre is run primarily by donations and proceeds from fundraisers.

Sixty-five children use the centre at the moment and the number of children is set to grow each month.

Yvonne O’Connell is the co-ordinator at the centre. As well as urging people to support its Rock your Funky Socks campaign, she is asking the public to support a bingo event in aid of The Down Syndrome Centre.

“Rock Bingo in Togher are hosting a Guinness World Record attempt to complete the world’s largest bingo card on Thursday, March 21. Tickets are €20 each. The event kicks off with a coffee morning at 10am. There will be music by Velvet. The bingo world record attempt will start at 12.30pm.”

To arrange collection boxes for Rock your Funky Socks and for more information on events, contact the Down Syndrome Centre Cork: Email: Facebook:

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