IT’S hard to imagine how Molly Dennehy O’Mahony even found time to enter this year’s Miss Cork competition – but it’s easy to see how she impressed judges enough to win the title of Miss Cork People’s Choice.
But it’s all in a day’s work for this 23-year-old powerhouse, who as well as studying part-time is also chief operating officer of the renowned Rainbow Club (centre for autism) in Mahon.
The charity was set up in 2015 by her parents Karen and Jon in response to their own needs – their sons Sean, aged 17, and Stephen aged 13, have autism.
The club currently has 1,200 members and offers 28 programmes and activities, catering for all ages. Currently the youngest member is two years old and the eldest adult is 23.
“To be honest, before Sean was diagnosed, autism wasn’t even on my radar, it was the first time I’d heard of it. I was 10 years old and my whole family changed overnight,” Molly remembers.
Sean was diagnosed when he was five, and Stephen when he was three years old. Molly, who also has an older brother Troy, says their diagnoses were a big shift for the family.
“It did impact me for sure, and it was very hard,” she said.
But just like her parents’ had taken the situation into their own hands by setting up the Rainbow Club, in 2020 Molly set up a sibling support group in the centre and came on board as a full time member of staff. What sets it apart is that it’s designed by siblings and delivered by siblings.
“It’s the only one of its kind in Ireland and we help over 100 siblings every week. There are three pillars that we focus on: firstly learning about autism; then learning how to deal with emotional issues, and feelings of stress, jealousy, isolation and frustration; and finally just providing an environment where other people understand what you’re going through,” she said.
“That’s crucial, because unless you’re part of it, you just can’t get it, and why would you? I remember when I was younger how I’d sometimes find it hard to invite friends over to the house in case they’d see one of my brothers stacking cans of food in the kitchen, or lining things up; or I’d be afraid that one of the boys would get upset if they saw someone they didn’t know. I would have found that embarrassing, or I’d get angry with them and then feel so guilty afterwards,” said Molly.
She knows the benefits of being part of a support group herself, having previously availed of talk therapy, and still availing of art therapy, which is why she’s so passionate about her work, and helping as many people as possible access it.
The family were thrown another challenge this year when Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer in January. She’s already gone through two surgeries and the next part of her treatment plan is chemotherapy.
“We’re working through it as a family, but it has been tough,” said Molly.
As Karen has naturally had to take a step back from the centre, Molly has seamlessly stepped up.
“She was there on the night when I won Miss Cork People’s Choice, and it was very emotional. My nan Carmel Dennehy was there as well – she’s my biggest cheer leader!”
Entering the competition was partly motivated by Karen’s diagnosis: “I suppose I was looking for a distraction. I wanted to do something positive … but never in a million years did I expect to win. It was such a shock!”
Molly is also studying psychology part time in the College of Commerce, and in whatever spare time she can grab, she loves nothing more than crafting.
“I have my own small business called Made by Molly where I make cards, mugs, that kind of thing – that’s my therapy. I love it!”
She’s going to use her platform this year to continue to promote the Rainbow Club, which she says is her life.
“There’s a massive demand for our services, numbers are growing all the time, and most of what we do is delivered through fund-raising,” she said.
Molly also wants to work with the Sexual Violence Centre and help promote their work, having experienced a sexual assault as a teenager.
Long term, the ambition is to replicate the Rainbow Club model all over the country.
“The centre is a place that I wish was around when I was growing up.
“I’ve seen first-hand the difference it can make to individuals and families, and I’m passionate about making this a reality. That’s my end goal.”