Six years ago, Karen Leigh faced a crisis. Her then nine-year-old, Conor, who has dyspraxia, needed speech and language services, plus occupational therapy.
The services cost €140 per hour, twice a week. “We just couldn’t afford that,” says Leigh. Instead of giving up, she founded Sensational Kids, a charity that since its birth has helped 4,000 children.
Services are charged out at €68 per hour, compared to €140 per hour in a private session, but Sensational Kids, which is backed by Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, never turn parents away.
Less than half of the charity’s income comes from fees. Since its foundation, it has received €100,000, plus two years’ mentorship from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland in 2015 .
Today, Sensational Kids, which is based in Kildare town, is “a big, colourful centre like what we had seen in Los Angeles because it didn’t exist in Ireland. We put a lot of money into equipment and the sensory integration gym.
“Our ethos is that we don’t exclude any child for any reason, be it financial or whether or not they have a diagnosis,” says Karen, who has helped parents and children from all parts of the country.
“There are children who fall through the gaps in the services and are sitting on waiting lists for several years. These are children with autism, dyspraxia, Down Syndrome and children who don’t have a diagnosis but need help.
"For example, a child may not be able to say [some words] properly, but needs a bit of speech and language therapy to catch up with their peers," Leigh tells The Irish Times.
‘Half their life’
“It’s not unusual to hear of children on waiting lists for services for three years for intervention from the HSE. Waiting two or three years when your child is five is a lot of time because that’s half their life,” she says.
The charity will open a new speech and language therapy unit in West Cork in April as some of the longest waiting lists for such services are in Cork and Kerry.
Karen says her ultimate goal is to have a Sensational Kids in every province in Ireland.
“Sensational Kids should not have to exist in theory but I’m glad we can make a meaningful contribution to children’s lives. You never actually set out to become a social entrepreneur – most of us come from solving a problem in our community and go and do something about it,” she says.
Social Entrepreneurs Ireland has reissued its call for ambitious individuals with ideas to tackle social problems to apply for the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards.
The deadline for applications for the awards is 5pm on March 29th.