THE smiles were contagious and the laughter infectious at the Down Syndrome Centre, Cork.
“We are celebrating the birthday of any child who has a birthday in August,” explains Joanne Hegarty, a mum of three from Dungourney, and who is a member of the committee of parents that set up the Down Syndrome Centre located at Forge Hill.
“Today it is the turn of Kitty and Jacob to blow out their candles,” says Joanne, whose lively toddler, Olivia, is intent on getting in on the action.
I am fortunate to meet another little star, Abby Dillon, aged 19 months, from Ovens, who was among the 14 toddlers chosen from 4,500 entries to be the face of the new Glenisk Organic no added sugar Baby Yogurts.
“Abby has endless smiles,” says Joanne.
The Down Syndrome Centre offers vital early intervention for some amazing little people, thus providing them with a place to thrive and offering support to parents of young children with Down syndrome.
The mums are pretty amazing too. Joanne Hegarty, Nora Connolly, and Celine Dineen, are among the group of mothers who will be taking part in the 36th Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon to raise funds for the Down Syndrome Centre Cork.
Grannies are game for the fun day out too. It is a group effort.
“My mother, who never walked before, is keen to get involved and take part in the mini-marathon with us,” says Joanne. “She is doing regular walks to get fit for it.”
Joanne walks me through the bright, welcoming premises that came about thanks to the dedication and commitment of 30 parents.
“Parents of children with Down syndrome can feel isolated,” says Joanne. “This is a place where the children can come, along with their siblings, to meet their pals and enjoy play and fun. Us mums can have a chat and a cup of coffee. Everyone feels included. The children have their own peg and their own identity here,” says Joanne.
Everyone brings something to the party and enjoy a good catch up every second Wednesday when the Centre hosts an open coffee morning for children and their parents. The children enjoy fun and games together.
“It is all about early intervention, and while there are other services in Cork; they are not very frequent,” says Joanne.
“We wanted more and better for our kids, so that they can reach their full potential. This Centre provides early vital intervention services to young children from one year to seven years for children with Down syndrome and their families.
“The children avail of speech and language therapy, parent and baby classes, included are regular events for the children and networking events for their parents.”
Joanne shows me into the soothing light sensory room that has specific sensory equipment and activities to benefit specific sensory processing difficulties. The bubble column fountain is particularly pretty.
“It is a popular room with controllable light sources and light energy,” says Joanne.
Little ones are taking time out from the birthday party to chill out here. Opposite, the charming small classroom is kitted out for the SKIP programme starting in September. SKIP stands for Special Kids’ Intervention Programme.
“The SKIP programme is an early development programme for children from zero to five with Down syndrome,” says Joanne. “The programme is holistic in nature and it is play-based. A SKIP session targets all areas of each child’s development, ie, speech and language, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, and most of all, social skills. The aim is to give the children the opportunity to congregate and to learn from one another and to experience specific development intervention geared towards their particular needs.”
The programme prepares the service users for the real world and the fun and adventures that come with that. A big part of that is friendship.
“Yes, making friends is a big part of it,” says Joanne.
“There are typically five children in a group and one teacher. Parents can observe via a camera from an adjoining room. The children will get a head-start before playschool and primary school learning, to do things like sitting at their desk, hanging up their coat, putting their sack under the table, these are little tasks that add up to a lot, getting ready for mainstream school. The children will get to know how to do these tasks in a fun, relaxed way through play therapy.”
When Celine’s daughter, Lucy, was born with Down syndrome, Celine didn’t know where to turn for support and connection.
“It was scary,” says Celine. “No one tells you. The doctors tend to tell you the negative things associated with having a child with Down syndrome. You worry about the other children in the family.”
Celine found great friends and wonderful support at the Centre.
“It’s the old cliché,” says Celine. “If I knew then, what I know now... I know that with early intervention, each child can reach their full potential. That is the key. Here, the family network is fantastic. We are all here to support everybody. There is great support in Cork for the Down Syndrome Centre — even by people who have no connection to it. ”
Lucy is showing me her pretty pink slide while in the process of enjoying a slice of gooey birthday cake. Is her Mummy a marathon bunny?
“When I had Lucy, I wasn’t a serious runner. I started with the couch to 5K and got going from there,” says Celine.
“I did my first half-marathon last year, 13.1 miles. I really enjoyed the challenge and the achievement.”
So the Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon will be a piece of cake?
“I wouldn’t quite say that,” says Celine, smiling. “But it will be great to have everyone on board on the day. The fun factor of fund-raising events is great. It can be quite emotional too.”
Joanne was emotional when Olivia was born.
“The Centre became a life-support for me,” she says. “I was all at sea and a bit overwhelmed. When I came here, I found it bright and warm; a place to meet and chat. I was not depressed — but uplifted,” adds Joanne, whose journey from her home to the Centre takes 40 minutes.
“It is a welcome change from doctors and hospital appointments,” she says.
“My other two get to come here with Olivia and meet all the others too.”
Nora Connelly’s husband is helping clear up after the party.
“Ah yes, dads get involved too,” says Nora, who saw the SKIP programme first-hand in operation in Dublin.
“All my kids want to come here with Zara,” says Nora, who is a mother of four from Ballygarvan. “They find it fun and very homely. I saw how the SKIP programme had great vibrancy,” adds Nora, who is Chairperson of the parents committee.
“I was impressed. It prepares a child with Down syndrome to go to mainstream school,” says Nora. “And at the end of the programme, it helps parents and carers acquire useful skills they can carry over into the home situation and daily life. It helps form a strong bond and to share experiences throughout the years.
“I thought; we can do that here. We got great help from Dublin and great support from them. Danni, our SKIP trainer was very enthusiastic,” says Nora.