Making a difference to millions of lives - Ireland's community heroes honoured

Winner of the 2018 National Community Hero Award, Mary Fitzgerald from Ballymacahill, Co. Clare, with Deirdre Garvey, Chief Executive of The Wheel, at The Wheel’s Charity Impact Awards in Dublin on Tuesday, 11 December. Mary was presented with the prestigious award for her voluntary work with the victims of domestic violence in Co. Clare. The Community Hero Award is a lifetime achievement award honouring a person who has made an extraordinary contribution to a good cause over the course of their lives. Pictured left to right Nina Arwitz, CEO, Volunteer Ireland 2018 National Community Hero Award, Mary Fitzgerald from Ballymacahill, Co. Clare, Deirdre Garvey, Chief Executive of The Wheel

An autism support group that helps hundreds of families in Cork and a Clare woman who set up ground-breaking services for victims of domestic violence, were among those honoured at an event recognising charitable work across the country.

The Wheel’s Charity Impact Awards were held in the Mansion House in Dublin on Tuesday night, and the 2018 Community Hero Award was presented to Mary Fitzgerald, who established Clare Haven Services in 1993 to provide refuge to families fleeing abuse.

The Wheel - the national association of charities, community and voluntary organisations and social enterprises - established the awards to celebrate the positive impact made by Ireland’s 29,000 non-profit organisations.

Deirdre Garvey, chief executive of The Wheel, said people like Mary Fitzgerald "enrich and improve our communities, and the charities they support make a difference to millions of lives, both here and across the world".

Other winners included the Barretstown camp for children with cancer and other serious illnesses, the youth information website, Spraoi Agus Spórt Family Centre, Helen Concannon of the Irish Girl Guides, and the Rainbow Club for Children with Autism.

The Rainbow Club, based in Mahon, Cork was established in 2015 when founders Karen and Jon O'Mahony noticed a lack of services and supports for children with autism and their families.

What started as a small club of parents is now a centre in need of a larger base. In total the Rainbow Club supports 628 families in the Cork area, providing sports and music programmes among other social interactions for children with autism, while also providing educational supports for their parents.

“Acknowledgement from an organisation like The Wheel gives us a voice. It opens a lot of doors for us,” Ms O’Mahony told the Irish Examiner.

“It is great not just for our volunteers, but for the families who come to our club. It’s as big a day for them as it is for us,” she said.

The Rainbow Club’s work is currently undertaken by contributors who give their time freely. However this is a restrictive arrangement given the everyday demands faced by their volunteers.

Ms O’Mahony said those behind the Rainbow Club now hope that this recognition by The Wheel will give weight to their efforts to secure partnerships with service providers such as the HSE.

The group wants to expand its reach - of the 628 families it supports, only 404 have the benefit of social groups for their children, while the rest are on a waiting list.

Those waiting can still avail of some services while on the waiting list, such as educational opportunities for parents.

“Families can still access us for support courses for parents and families,” Ms O’Mahony said.

“We strongly believe in empowering parents and educating them on meeting their child’s needs. That way they are less dependant on services,” she said.

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