Dreaming big for kids who have Down Syndrome

Construction began this week on the Field of Dreams, which will provide employment for people with Down Syndrome. CHRIS DUNNE talks to Ray O’Callaghan to find out more about the exciting project
Dreaming big for kids who have Down Syndrome
At the sod turning of the Field of Dreams were DS Adult Members Maeve Owens, Jenny O Halloran, Rowan Gill, Luke Lane, Laura Aherne, Michael Barry.

WHEN Ray O’Callaghan decided he wanted to make a dream come true; people thought that he was mad.

“I announced, ‘Let’s buy a farm!’” says Ray.

Is he from a farming background in his native Buttevant?

“I had never even been on a farm,” admits Ray, who is the manager of Marks & Spencer, Cork.

No wonder, then, that he got an amazed reaction when he mooted the idea to other parents who have children with Down Syndrome.

When did this dream come to him?

“I was watching a TV programme on Channel 4 called Field Of Dreams,” says Ray, who is the chairman of Down Syndrome Cork.

“It was about five adults, some with Down Syndrome, others with special needs, who went to work on a farm. The work gave them a meaningful purpose and getting up for work in the morning gave them a sense of normality,” says Ray.

“The five adults were all out in the open working away together. They had a sense of dignity. The programme was a light-bulb moment for me.

“My daughter Grace, who has Down Syndrome and who is 12 this month, goes to a care farm in Castlemartyr. Kids go to work with animals of a smaller size like horses, pigs, chickens and lambs. Grace comes home covered in muck, invigorated and delighted.

“When I mentioned at the next DS meeting that we should build a farm, everyone thought I was completely nuts.”

But dreams really do come true. Diarmuid Gavin turned the sod on the Field of Dreams on a damp, foggy morning, just last month. The five-acre site is at Curraheen.

“The name is inspired by the film; Field Of Dreams, about a baseball team,” explains Ray.

“The first year the parents listened to the idea and they thought about it. The second year we looked at land that might make a suitable site, access and location-wise. We had no idea,” says Ray.

“We were looking in the windows of the auctioneers ‘For Sale’ signs. Really, we should have been looking where farmers look!”

The group didn’t have to look further afield when the Munster Agricultural Society leased land to them on very favourable terms.

“Simon Coveney, Kathleen Lynch and David Stanton got behind us. We got funding from The Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture,” says Ray. “We got planning for the site in Curraheen, but we needed more money.”

Sponsors rowed in.

“My employers, M&S, were hugely supportive,” says Ray. “Both physically and in monetary terms. The business community supported us and now we have some key sponsors as well as M&S, the ESB, Pepsi-Cola Cork, Dansko Foods, Keelings Fruit and PM; Project Management.”

From small acorns, oak trees grow.

“That is so true,” says Ray. “This is just a few of us doing something that we believe is right for our kids.”

So Grace will be getting stuck in?

“Yes, she will,” says Ray. “Not immediately, but Field of Dreams will be there for her when she is older. Grace loves the outdoors and she loves animals.

“Field of Dreams is about giving Grace and other children with DS opportunities. And it is also about giving parents of children with DS hope.”

Ray knows that having like-minded support at the wheel gets things moving forward.

“I got involved with DS when Grace was diagnosed with DS two years after she was born,” he says.

“I felt I had to get involved because state services were so difficult to access. At the beginning, when I joined, DS Cork were working out of a boot of a car with the aid of one speech therapist. They travelled to different locations giving speech therapy to children.

“A few of us parents decided this wasn’t good enough for our children, so we set up Centre 21 in Blackpool. The centre now employs 20 people, giving more than 50 children therapy every week. Grace goes there for speech therapy every single week. If we were to rely on state services, she would get six hours speech therapy a year. The centre is totally funded by volunteers. It takes €250,000 a year to keep going. The people of Cork are incredibly generous to us,” says Ray.

“Our fundraisers like the Tour De Munster cyclists do Trojan work.”

Ray says that 95% of adults with DS have no work.

“So if there were 100 people in this room with Down Syndrome, only five of them would be working,” says Ray, who is talking to me over a cup of coffee at his workplace.

Ray is 49. He and his wife Brenda have to look ahead, to ensure that Grace has a meaningful future.

“Grace is our beautiful daughter who happens to have different needs to her two brothers,” says Ray.

“What happens when I am 69 and Grace is only 31? What if one of her parents passed away? It is a worry.”

Ray and Brenda decided that the dreams they had for their daughter’s future didn’t differ a whole lot from those of her brothers.

“The boys can go to college,” says Ray. “They have a choice. Grace doesn’t have that. She should be able to have some opportunities in life. We are going to show people that adults with Down Syndrome have skills and that they can be employed.”

Ray gives an example.

“Look at the DS bookshop on this floor in Merchants Quay. Adults with DS work there and they connect with the public very well. They sell, they add up. They do a good job. Everyone enjoys going in there for a browse or a purchase.

“Field of Dreams will give Grace and other children that chance to be employed,” says Ray.

“They will acquire life skills that will benefit them for the future. The opportunities that Field of Dreams offer are many; baking, horticulture, reception. These are all roles that adults with DS can enjoy.”

Field of Dreams is about purpose and achieving goals.

“It’s about getting your gloves and boots on ready to go to work on a cold day, when you don’t really feel like it,” says Ray.

“It is about real life. It’s about getting the bus to work and getting involved in good, healthy outdoor pursuits.”

Diarmuid Gavin enjoyed getting involved in the project.

“I sent him an email,” say Ray. “He told me that he couldn’t ignore it. He loved our motivation. He was the added spark for a bunch of parents that wanted to make a difference for their kids.”

Grace is a bright spark. Ray smiles.

“She is just a bundle of fun,” he says. “Our boys, David, aged 18 and Harry, aged 15, bring their own things to the table, but Grace brings something different altogether.

“We all adore her. She is a mischievous, lovable, popular child. She is the boys’ little sister. And they protect her. She has a positive effect on everybody who meets her.”

So she has her own X factor?

“Exactly that,” agrees Ray. “She loves her Ipad and watching movies. Sing was one of her favourite recent movies.

“Grace has made family life incredibly real and rewarding for us. When I get home in the evening she gives me a big hug. It puts things into perspective. Her speech isn’t great. But she’ll be on her iPad and chats away about her day. She loves her school, Glasheen Girls National School.”

Ray says children with DS are deemed to be in a box.

“Yes, society has changed slightly,” says Ray. “But more change is needed. Everybody has capabilities.” Ray says that when a gang of like-minded people get together; anything is possible.

“People like Jason Vane and committed parents like him are hard to find.

“But when 12 people are driven and they have enthusiastic volunteers behind them, things start to happen. We still need more volunteers and more sponsors. But, you know, anybody who hears about the project wants to get involved.

“They see that instead of moaning, we are doing something and making things happen. In this cynical world, we are just a bunch of parents trying to make a difference for our kids.”

Ray would like something else to happen.

“It is a pity we can’t change Down Syndrome to Up Syndrome,” says Ray with a rueful smile. “Wouldn’t that be great?”

He says that he and Brenda’s hopes are that Grace will live a normal, unhindered life, free from any obstacles.

“I’ve always been a dreamer,” says Ray as we bid farewell. “The sod has been turned, the builders are about on site. CField construction is ready to go.”

So now the real work of making dreams come true begins.

“We hope that Grace will realise her full potential and realise her dreams too.”

Just like her daddy did.

For more see http://fieldofdreamscork.ie/ and http://downsyndromecork.ie

Email:reception@dsicork.org Phone: 021-4300444.

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