FOR more than three decades the Deaf Enterprises in Ballinlough has been making people smile by giving a new lease of life to old furniture, which is often steeped in sentimental value.
This forms just part of the services the Deaf Enterprises’ highly skilled workforce provides, as French polishing, repair and sewing services and unique customer requests are all part of the day-to-day business at the premises at 2 Sundrive Park.
The fine craftsmanship of the employees working at the centre was something I recently witnessed when my mum was gifted two pillows from a family member. They were made up in remembrance of her parents, who recently passed away, using material from items of their clothing.
“As a grieving tool they are of enormous comfort and I was absolutely delighted with them. This year has been a really challenging one for businesses, so I think it’s a really positive thing for people to support local businesses and social enterprises such as the Deaf Enterprises,” she tells me.
As in the diversity of the requests they receive, diversity and inclusivity are integral parts of the workforce at the Deaf Enterprises, where the majority of the 28 employees fall into categories of deaf and differently-abled.
The social enterprise was founded in 1987 by Fr Bill Clarke in a bid to address the high levels of unemployment within the deaf community.
“He realised that the deaf people, even though they were educated and had a deaf club and all of that kind of support, there was nobody organising any work for them,” said senior administrator Marie Harris, who has been working at the Deaf Enterprises since 1990.
“Some of them did find work, but it was usually through family or friends. The majority didn’t have work. The Deaf Enterprises was then founded by Fr Clarke and two of his friends, Michael Tanner and Bernie Tanner and another woman. She was a nun, she was attached to the Bons Secours Hospital and she had a good knowledge of the deaf as well.
“They founded it and it started out very small in Donnybrook. They were there for about three years and it grew then as the deaf were encouraged to undertake this type of work and anybody who was interested came along,” she said.
From humble beginnings, the Deaf Enterprises is now a force to be reckoned with, and each year it re-upholsters and restores countless pieces of furniture which might otherwise have ended up in a landfill.
This is one of the aspects of the Deaf Enterprises that general manager Steven Flint is most proud of.
“If you think about the fact that we’re reusing an item, we’re recovering it but the frame of the item is still the original, it’s a very environmentally friendly service that we provide,” he told The Echo.
“We’re even seeing through State projects, rather than just stripping out and throwing away, they’re actually looking to people like ourselves to repair and renew. I think that’s a strong aspect of what we have to offer. We like to do our bit to save things from going to the dump,” Marie chimed in.
For machinist Patricia Mooney, the best part of the job is seeing the reaction on people’s faces when they restore a piece of furniture near and dear to someone’s heart.
“Like the pillows we made, we’ve had plenty of chairs in that would have sentimental value, say from a grandparent or something like that, and they often go out with tears in their eyes saying ‘I’m gobsmacked at what ye can do!’”
Neither Patricia nor Marie or Steven are deaf, but they have all learned how to communicate with the deaf employees.
“Anyone new coming in is always asked to go to sign language classes.
“There’s no point in working with deaf people if you can’t communicate with them.
“They encourage us to sign and they help us a lot,” Marie said.
Once an employee is trained and qualified, they have the option to remain working at the Deaf Enterprises or find another job elsewhere.
Many have gone on to set up their own companies too.
While reupholstering and repairing furniture forms the bulk of the Deaf Enterprises’ business, employees also manufacture some furniture pieces from scratch.
“We make footstools of any size which are made to order, we make poofs, headboards and mini chaise lounges. They’re very popular.
“We also make baby fireside chairs, especially around Christmas. They definitely last the test of time, I had got one made up for my daughter who’s now 45 and we still have it at home!” Marie said.
The staff are also well trained in difficult techniques, such as deep button and pleating.
One particular piece that was done using this technique stands out in Marie’s mind.
“There was one particular chair we were asked to cover. It was actually for Fitzgerald Menswear on Patrick Street, they have it in the shop. It was just a magnificent chair. It was done in deep button and pleating, which is a difficult thing to do and it looked incredible when it was finished.”
The Deaf Enterprises relies on funding to keep churning out this high-quality work, as Steven says.
“About 50% of our income would come from direct funding to do with wage supports and then grants that we would apply for.
“Those would range from revenue grants to capital grants depending on what it is that we’re looking to try to do.
“The mission and the substance of the organisation is that it’s a social enterprise.
“It is a registered charity but it is a social enterprise so it has that commercial presence but it’s not directly competing with similar organisations that would be outside of that social enterprise description.
“It is a business, so it has an income from the work that we undertake but it also has a purpose in terms of a community services programme funded by Pobal, a State agency that would support various projects around the country,” he said.
Despite a challenging year due to Covid-19, it’s onwards and upwards for the Deaf Enterprises.
“Every day is different,” Marie said.
“We’re in business over 30 years so we’ve come across a lot but every now and then you get a request for something we might not have had before.”