IWA youth service gives a voice to all in the community

Like all young men and women, the teenagers who attend the day services in the Irish Wheelchair Association centre in Drogheda want to have a voice, and to be heard and valued in the community.

egardless of what special need you might have, everyone want to know they are valued and have a role to play, and with the unique Feabhsú service offered by the caring staff in Mayoralty Street, everyone’s opinions and voice matters.

‘Feabhsú is the Irish word for enhancement, which is what we aim to do here, not to change but to enhance their lives,’ explains Sara McKeown, Senior Manager for Co Louth, taking in Dundalk, Drogheda and Ardee. ‘We have five young men aged between 18 and 25 and they have very high support needs, which means they are non-verbal, they need all their personal hygiene and care looked after, meals and medication.’

She says the main goal of the service is to tailor it to each person, allow them to be themselves. 

‘We have one fella who just loves being out and about, in the park and going to Mass and meeting people, and then we have another lad who just loves to sit and watch people and observe what they’re doing, and that is okay too,’ says Sara. ‘This all about personal choice, about what they like to eat, and the parents can even send in their own food, so they are getting their favourite meals.’

It is purely a coincidence that it is all young men at the moment, but Service Support Officer Demetria Slevin says that is about to change.

‘It was just the way it fell, but the cat will be put amongst the pigeons soon now as we have two young women coming to us in September,’ says Demetria with a laugh. ‘They’ll be fighting over the boys, like all teenagers do!’

The service provides high support care for young people from Drogheda to Togher – South to Mid Louth – with the Dundalk service picking up from there. 

This service has five core staff and then there is CE (Community Employment) and Jobs Initiative support too.

‘The support from CE is essential, and we simply couldn’t run without it,’ says Sara. ‘90% of our staff are former CE participants, as they come in and make such a difference, receiving training and forming a real bond, and they prove themselves as being person-centred, which is what we are all about.’

Another goal of the service is to increase independence and confidence amongst the youngsters. 

‘Decades ago, everything would have been decided for them, and now this allows them to choose, to say ‘no I don’t like that’, and even if some of them are not verbal, they still have that choice, and they still have their voice,’ says Demetria. ‘I also have to say I am blessed with the staff we have here,. If you could handpick people to work here, you couldn’t do better; they go above and beyond and it’s what makes our service.’

Another service provided at the centre is a Life Skills Programme, which at the moment sees 18 young adults from 19 to 25 learning independent living.

‘In their heads, they are here in college,’ says Demetria, whose ‘baby’ this project is.

‘The participants have all different abilities and they just love to come here, it is definitely the highlight of their week.’

The group comes Monday to Friday, but due to current restrictions, they come there days a week in pods, but as things open up, they will gradually return to five days.

It’s little wonder they love taking part, given the variety of activities in which they are involved!

‘We do all sorts with them; cooking, travelling, budgeting, money and time management, cleaning and housekeeping, computer skills, and online communication to name a few,’ says Demetria. ‘They also get involved in other community projects – right now they’re doing ‘Heat the Homeless’, where they are making sleeping bags for the homeless out of crisp wrappers, and we also got some 3D printers, and they are starting a mini-company where they can sell little ornaments they make themselves.’

Both women are keen to point out what valued members of the community everyone can become, and that people just learn in different ways.

‘We have a very talented artist in our group, who is deaf, and uses sign language,’ explains Sara, ‘and even though English isn’t her first language, she is teaching the other group how to use sign language. Every day we go in, another word or phrase has been taught, and the group has such a thirst for knowledge, it it amazing.’

All they want is to be part of something, and to be seen as ‘non-disabled’.

‘They don’t want to be defined, but seen as a member of the community under no heading, and they all bring something to the group,’ says Demetria. ‘If one can’t tie a shoelace, another will drop and do it for them, they constantly have each other’s back.’

There are fun elements too, and apparently make-up is a hot topic amongst the female attendees!

‘Again, like any teenage girl, they want to know about beauty, learning how to apply make-up or curl their hair and look after themselves,’ adds Sara. ‘We have an allotment where we tend the veg, and as well as an athletics programme, and daytrips to Tayto Park or the beach.’

One highlight for the group will be the premiere of a movie they are making about themselves. 

‘We’ve had 12 sessions on Zoom about it, and filmmaker Shay Casserely will be coming from Navan to do it with them,’ explains Demetria. ‘We’re all looking forward to dressing up for the opening night and seeing how they got on.’

This vital service does not come cheap, and funding for the centre has been seriously curtailed due to the pandemic.

‘Sadly we haven’t been able to do our annual Angels campaign for the past two years, and they loved doing it here,’ says Sara. ‘The older ladies in particular used to love the chat when people came in.’

They both agree the most rewarding part of the service is seeing the young people flourish and blossom. 

‘It is so rewarding when you see them not only do things for themselves, but for others, and often they travel to and from the centre with each other on the bus,’ says Demetria. ‘One of our young men has difficulty speaking and when he came I asked him what he wants, and he said to find his voice. 

‘And he recently went into a shop and asked for a job, and he got it, and that was one of the happiest days for all of us.’

Both women say the support network within the IWA in Drogheda is phenomenal, as it has always been since the first days of Oliver Murphy’s initial involvement. 

‘He really started a great movement here, and the Feabhsú co-ordinator Colin Maher is local, as is Declan Hamilton, the IWA area manger, and National Director Mildred Carroll,’ laughs Demetria. ‘We are blessed with our staff and of course our wonderful young people in the centre.’

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