Gateway to work for youngsters rarely given a chance

Blossom Buddies: An award-winning initiative looks to life after school for teenagers with intellectual disabilities


For years Conor Fogarty (18) has dreamed of working at his local supermarket, a few minutes’ walk from the housing estate where he has grown up in Sutton, Co Dublin.

 Embedded in the community, he relishes the idea of being in a place where he would know quite a few of the customers and they him. But, having been born with Down Syndrome, it is that much more difficult for him than most of his peers to get his foot in the door.

 However, it is encouraging that he has been interviewed at his local branch of Supervalu and he is waiting to hear if he will be placed on a company panel of people with varying abilities who are then considered when an opportunity comes up.

 “It’s taking ages,” says Conor, as he paces around the living room of the home where he stays half the week with his father, Colin, and spends the rest of the time with his mother, who lives in the same estate. A slight figure, dressed in denim jeans and a bright orange polo shirt that picks up the same colour in the stripes on his runners, Conor lobs the odd comment into the conversation as Colin outlines how his son was helped to prepare for the supermarket interview as part of an innovative scheme called “Blossom Gateway”. This is the newest programme from Blossom Ireland, which was set up in 2010 to run camps for children with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities. As the camp participants have matured over the years, so has the organisation evolved to meet their changing needs and it now has a suite of programmes for ages eight to 18.

 Conor is one of the first teenagers to graduate from Blossom Gateway, which teaches life skills such as how to compile a CV, approach potential employers, course enrolment and securing work placement. And in June, this initiative was one of four community projects awarded a grant from the €450,000 Engage and Education fund, which is a joint three-year commitment between Social Innovation Fund Ireland, Mason, Hayes & Curran and the Government.

 Like many parents of children with an intellectual disability, Auveen Bell realised early on that if her son Rory was going to get any of the opportunities of his mainstream peers, she would have to play a major role in providing them. That’s why she and fellow parent Orla Crowe set up Blossom Ireland, initially to offer camps during the school holidays where children with special needs could have some fun, learn new skills and make friends – as well as give their parents an all-important break.

Three years ago, it added Blossom Buddies to its services, primarily for those aged 14 to 16. Early teens is when youngsters usually enjoy more independence from home – hanging out with friends on their own, meeting up in the local coffee shop or going to the cinema.

“For teens with disabilities,” says Bell, who is now the charity’s CEO, “they needed support to do that and typically it would be a parent who would provide that support, which just isn’t cool when you are a teenager. So we try to bridge that gap.”


During weekend sessions, staff work hard to teach participants life skills for independence. For example, going into a coffee shop is broken into seven steps: from entering and establishing good eye contact and saying “Hello”, to ordering, through to finding your own seat. It might sound basic, Bell says, but she knows as a mother that she is guilty of going into a coffee shop, pulling out a chair for Rory, telling him to sit down and then doing the rest herself.

 The Blossom Buddies programme has really helped Conor’s independence skills, says Colin and, as he is explaining that it involves going to local restaurants, local shops . . . Conor interjects:  “And the Chinese”. Colin laughs and says the fact that his son can now go and order a Chinese takeaway on his own is a direct result of the programme.

 The Blossom Buddies concept of teaching independence skills is a wake-up call for us all, he says. “These guys can do a lot more than we think they can.” As parents, “we’re doing everything for them,” he admits. “It’s a matter of giving these guys a bit of space.”

 Now Blossom Gateway takes these teenagers up to the age of 18, building on what they have been learning and looking to life after school. “Nobody else was doing that with them while they were in school,” says Bell who, as she watches her older child Aisling (17) navigate various learning opportunities, then looks at Rory (15) and tries to work out how they could facilitate that for him.

Aisling has just finished Transition Year (TY) during which she had work experience placements, picked subjects for the Leaving Certificate and started discussing what college she might like to go to. “That conversation is never going to happen for Rory,” says Bell. “The CAO isn’t going to exist, university isn’t an option, but the alternatives aren’t there either.”

Gateway has been designed to draw on elements of TY. As well as preparation of CVs, students get the chance to visit local businesses to see the type of roles and jobs out there, she explains, and they have work experience at a local allotment, learning to arrive on time every day and take instruction. “We also sit down with them and discuss their likes and dislikes and what area they might like to work in – which, to be honest, is not happening at any level. I am a parent, nobody talks to us about this and nobody talks about it to Rory either.”

 When teenagers with intellectual disabilities leave school, parents just hope that before the following September they will be given a place in a day training centre.  But the allocation of a centre will be based on where there’s a place and probably based on his address, she points out.

 “It is nothing to do with their abilities, their skills. They have no choice and they have no input and we as a family have no input or choice.”

 Through Gateway, Blossom Ireland is “just trying to address that in some small way”, she explains. “We have always taken the attitude that, from the outside looking in, our services should be the same as any other service out there for their mainstream peers.”

 Results from the 2016 Census show that the number of people reported as having an intellectual disability rose from 57,709 in 2011 to 66,611 in 2016.

 Conor, who started attending Blossom Ireland camps when he was 10, told them last summer that he wanted a job at a camp.

 “We took him seriously,” says Bell. They did induction training and enrolled him as a member of their volunteer support staff.

 She recalls how he came to an earlier teen camp with his mates as a participant, “head down, too cool to talk”. But a few weeks later, he came into the camp for younger children as a support staff member “and he came in as a man”.

 They had offered to arrange a lift for him each day to the camp in Raheny but Conor decided he would get there himself using the Dart.

 “The fact that we believed in him to give him a job, he decided he would show us he could do it,” she says. “He arrived every day on time. He was in charge of the visual scheduling and he knew exactly what was supposed to be happening when. He was brilliant.

 “The other element that he brought, that none of the rest of the staff had, was that he had come through the camps and that was a different perspective. For him and for us, it was an amazing experience.”

Paid role

Conor returned at Easter to volunteer and now Bell foresees offering him a paid role at future camps.

It’s getting such a chance to prove himself in the world of work that Colin sees as the big challenge for his son. “If Conor can get a foot in the door, he is a good character who will add value to any team. How do you get that message across? How do you get that one opportunity?”

Meanwhile, Conor will start attending Prosper Fingal training centre in Swords in September, where he will be doing a life skills programme, as well as English and speech therapy. That’s due to last three years; after that, he will be at a crossroads.

 “The real challenge in the whole system is that Conor won’t be coming out with a recognisable qualification,” says Colin. “He is quite capable of doing a lot of things but he doesn’t have something under his arm to say ‘I can do this’, and that’s a big issue.”

 When he graduated from St Augustine’s School in Blackrock, Co Dublin, in June, he had nothing to show for it. Whereas the average student coming out of the school system has a Leaving Cert, says Colin, and where his son is moving on to, there are no Fetac qualifications. “If Conor is meeting up with someone, it is not apparent that he has any skill sets that I know he has.”

 Bell is also very frustrated that after 13 years of school, there are no educational attainments on these young people’s CVs.

  “How can an employer decide what skill level they have when there is nothing to go by? They might not be able for Fetac but there should be some sort of framework to show they have these skills at some level,” she says.

 Many youngsters with intellectual disabilities have “loads of potential if they are trained in the right way”, she stresses. But instead, it seems, they are written off as a group and not seen as individuals with particular passions and abilities.

 Currently, her son Rory is at St Michael’s House Special School and when he leaves that, in a couple of years, she doesn’t expect any “joined-up thinking” about where he should go. For example, training staff don’t come out to meet the youngsters and their parents, she says, to try to decide who might be suited to what.

  A few years ago she remembers a mother of a boy with a mild intellectual disability telling her how his training centre place was allocated purely on the basis that it had a stairs with which he was able to cope, while another youngster might not. Some months later, the mother was struggling to get her son out of the bed in the morning, probably because this boy, with “loads of ability”, was “bored out of his tree”, Bell suggests.

 The awarding of social innovation funding is “brilliant” not only for the €27,500 injection of cash and a mentoring programme worth a further €10,000, but also that it is coming under the heading of “education”. Traditionally, services for people with intellectual disabilities is funded by health and “we just want this shift in attitude”.

 “Our programme is undisputedly an education programme, so we are thrilled to get that recognition. That is really important – that mindset shift.”

 While one long-term aim for Blossom Ireland would be to expand beyond the community around its Raheny base, the biggest handicap, she explains, is the lack of sustainable funding. A team from Trinity College has assessed all their programmes for scaling up and it was recommended that they devise a quality framework for them and produce manuals.

 Bell and her three colleagues are currently working on that, with a view to documenting a “best practice” template that other people could use in other areas, even if Blossom Ireland doesn’t grow fast enough to do it themselves.

 All along, Blossom Ireland’s development has been guided by Bell seeing the gap from the need in her own family’s home. “I have my parent hat on all the time because I live with this and I have my business hat on too,” says Bell, who has a background in project management and commercial marketing. But she is adamant that they won’t venture into adult services.

 It’s “a big disappointment”, says Colin that, at 18, Conor is finished with Blossom Ireland. While they are grateful for everything it has done for him, “I would hope”, he jokes “that Blossom would end when he’s 58”.

 However, as a new group of 16 students start the Gateway programme this autumn, I wouldn’t bet against Conor Fogarty making an appearance at some stage as a star past pupil . . .

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