A CORK charity, which supports hundreds of children with autism and their families, has seen its fundraising efforts decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the Rainbow Club is still looking to the future with optimism amid ongoing expansion plans in both services and premises.
The Rainbow Club was founded in Mahon in 2015 by Karen and Jon O’Mahony in a bid to support children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families across Cork.
The club is mainly run by volunteers, but it also employs a centre manager and a number of therapists, who cater for the 500 or so children that attend the club each week.
The Rainbow Club’s annual winter wonderland ball, one of the charity’s main fundraisers, has been cancelled for the past two years, along with everyday fundraising efforts such bag packing at supermarkets, as a result of Covid.
Speaking to The Echo, Karen admitted that the past two years had been difficult.
“It has been horrific,” she said. “It was a difficult way of working in that environment.
“Trying to put things in place for children with autism during this time was very difficult and would have had an impact on staff, who just wanted to support them in the usual way.
“When you look at ASD, we want children to be relaxed and to be able to enjoy their time with us.
“It’s been a massive learning curve, but it has taken its toll on everybody.”
The club was forced to close from the end of March 2020 to early July that year as Ireland entered its first lockdown.
However, it was able to reopen quickly following the lockdown, thanks mainly to fundraising efforts involving the Cork International Hotel.
“We reopened when a lot of places were still closed and we were able to put measures in place to ensure people’s safety,” Karen explained.
“Cork International Hotel came on board with us and they worked on a campaign which raised €40,000. That allowed us to open back up safely.
“We’re so appreciative of the work that everyone put in to make that possible.”
The Rainbow Club also added several modular units, which allowed for greater social distancing to ensure that every child and family could return to the club.
“If we didn’t have that space, we wouldn’t have been able to bring everyone back and that wasn’t an option for Jon and I,” Karen said.
“It was a case of, if we’re not all coming back, no one is coming back — we weren’t going to pick and choose children to come back.”
Karen explained that a fast reopening ensured that no child attending the Rainbow Club regressed during the lockdown.
“We closed for the three months... but we were able to reopen under very strict guidelines,” she said.
“It was just the children and us in the building. It’s a shared centre here but every other activity in the community centre was shelved.
“We were lucky to have the support of the community centre here who allowed us back in,” Karen added.
“It allowed the children to get back into the routine of coming here, and for families to do that as well.
“Some families took increased days because they needed to after the impact of the lockdown and three months out.
“We didn’t see regression in terms of what they were learning or achieving, but their fear around Covid was definitely much more present.”
Despite the positivity surrounding the reopening of the Rainbow Club in the summer of 2020, Karen admitted that the concerns over the lack of fundraising opportunities were taking their toll.
“We had to do all this while our fundraising was decimated,” she said.
“Everything was gone. We had to organise online fundraisers, but there was fierce competition out there in terms of online fundraisers.
“A lot of our stuff is all on the ground, from bucket collections, bag packing at stores, events and more — all of that was gone.
“We didn’t really have an online fundraising presence before Covid, so that was a learning curve.
“The lack of fundraisers in 2020, like The Echo’s Mini Marathon or our Winter Ball, did have us worried.
“Our cafe was also completely shut down as well and unable to reopen, and that was a huge loss both financially and within the community; it’s such a vital part of that.
“It brings in people to link in with the club, people have jobs there, and it’s a training cafe. The cafe was a massive loss.”
Despite the concern around a lack of fundraisers, the Rainbow Club is actually in the middle of an expansion that will expand both the charity’s footprint and services.
Karen praised the Mahon Community Centre and Cork City Council for their support in securing lands and funds to build three modular units next to the centre, which now house therapy rooms and sibling workshop areas.
There are also plans to develop a nearby sports hall to accommodate an extensive sports programme for people with autism, subject to sports grant funding.
The Rainbow Club also hopes to develop a youth hub in the new year and a horticulture area.
It recently received funding from the HSE for a centre manager, which Karen said has been a big help.
“It’s another person at the helm, and we hope to add to our staff, which is currently at 25, in the new year,” she said.
“We also have a very large pool of volunteers and students from our links with local colleges, so there’s a lot of boots on the ground already.
“But 2022 is going to be very busy, so we’re keen to add to that as well.”
As well as expanding its services for children with autism, the Rainbow Club is keen to develop services for teenagers, something that Karen said was sorely lacking.
“We’re focusing a lot of our attention on putting supports in place for teenagers, as a lot of the children that started with us here are now reaching that age,” she explained.
“There are little or no supports for teenagers and young adults with autism out there at the moment and we know we have the expertise to bridge that gap.
“We just need the support to do that.”
To achieve that support, the Rainbow Club is keen to link up with local businesses to secure funding for activities and modular hubs.
“Being able to sustain ourselves long term is a big focus at the moment,” explained Karen.
“It would be great to get more Government funding, but we want to work towards being able to sustain ourselves.
“Everything we do is paid for through fundraising and the reduced fees paid by parents as well.
“We want to work with local businesses, who would come on board to sponsor our activities, whether it be for a year or a month or a few weeks,” she said.
As well as that, fundraising efforts are still ongoing at the club, including an online raffle, which Karen urged the public to support. Tickets are available at idonate.ie.
Despite the pandemic and the impact of lockdowns on fundraising efforts, Karen said the spirit of the Rainbow Club could not and would not be dampened.
“It hasn’t stopped us from being us,” she stated.
“It’s important that people know we’ll still be here supporting them and their children no matter what.
“We see the potential in young boys and girls with autism, and that they just need someone to believe in them — that’s what drives us.”