Every cloud has a silver lining, the old saying goes, and it is certainly the case for the team behind Meitheal 21, the newly built activities centre of the Tipperary branch of Down Syndrome Ireland.
The semi-detached house on Abbey Road in Thurles was converted during Covid-19 lockdowns – funded by charity events and a massive volunteering effort by builders and others, many of whose other projects were put on hold during the pandemic.
"It was an unbelievable project," says Catherine Cleary, the chairperson of the Tipperary branch of Down Syndrome Ireland. "We'll never see the like of it again. Covid worked to our advantage, but we say it quietly because a lot of people suffered during the pandemic."
Noel Buckley, a retired teacher who became the voluntary site manager during the project, says people came in off the street asking how they could help.
“It was a positive spark in the midst of a pandemic that attracted people to help people who needed help.”
In total, about 80 tradespeople worked on the project for free.
The group had been using rented premises around the county to hold speech therapy sessions and exercise classes, but it was their dream to have a permanent hub where people with Down syndrome, and their families and friends, could go for classes, therapy sessions and informal meet-ups. To date, it is the only day activities centre of its kind for people with Down syndrome in Ireland.
The entire fit-out would have cost an estimated €500,000 if all building materials and labour hours were counted, but Meitheal 21 was completed for a fraction of the cost due to the generosity of building suppliers, contractors and families and friends who fundraised for the project. The next-door neighbour even donated a section of their garden for a playground, which is accessed via a long glass-covered corridor so as not to interrupt therapy sessions taking place in the house.
Meitheal 21 was officially opened earlier this summer for the launch of the Tour de Munster, the annual cycle which raises funds for the Munster branches of Down Syndrome Ireland.the annual cycle which raises funds for the Munster branches of Down Syndrome Ireland.
My own daughter, Katie, who is nine and going into third class, has serious speech difficulties, but she'd be non-verbal if we didn't have the speech and language therapy
"Because the centre isn't residential, we didn't get any Government grants, but we were able to ring-fence funding from last year's Tour de Munster to purchase the building and we got lots of support from the local community and the Heart to Hand charity," explains Cleary. Because of the pandemic, the Heart to Hand charity was able to provide carpenters, steel workers, electricians and plumbers who would usually be working on houses for homeless people and upgrading orphanages in Albania.
Currently, one-to-one speech and language therapy sessions are held at Meitheal 21. Occupational therapy sessions, dance and yoga classes and a mental health and wellbeing course for older adults with Down syndrome are due to start soon.
Cleary says that the association’s ability to subsidise speech and language therapy sessions for families is crucial.
"My own daughter, Katie, who is nine and going into third class at Leugh National School in Thurles, has serious speech difficulties, but she'd be non-verbal if we didn't have the speech and language therapy. The HSE services are fairly non-existent here."
The centre requires the services of a speech and language therapist at least four days a week and soon will also have an occupational therapist seeing clients two days a week. Cooking, gardening and computer classes are also planned for the near future.
“The centre is also fantastic for parents to meet up while children can play safely in the playground. We haven’t been able to have groups during Covid but hope to meet up outdoors again soon. It’s a great way for parents to pick up hints and tips when meeting parents of children the same age at theirs. We are open for anyone with Down syndrome from birth to adulthood,” says Cleary.
Siobhan Ryan, mother of Aoife, who uses the services at Meitheal 21, says that the facility means so much to families. "Having a safe space that looks amazing to receive really good therapies and have so much fun means so much to us."