Blind entrepreneur wins national award for successful health food business

When an unemployed Donegal man sought a quick recovery from knee surgery, he found a solution that’s now earning him a living as well as accolades and awards.

Derek Walker (28) from Letterkenny was advised to take wheatgrass as part of his recovery because the natural food product is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals and helps with healing. Wheatgrass is even said to help cure cancer.

However, it isn’t the easiest item to digest, so Derek began growing and producing convenient 30ml shots of fast-frozen wheatgrass juice for his own consumption and for sale.

He felt he had to try to make a living somehow. Derek is registered blind and had been unable to find normal paid work, partly he believes because of discrimination.

With support from Donegal Local Development Company’s (DLDC) self-employment support unit, he was able to move production from a spare room in his house to custom-designed facilities. Today, his wheatgrass juice shots are sold in dozens of Tesco, Supervalu and other stores.

When he discovered that Letterkenny had no market for local food, craft and art producers, he and his fiancé Anna McQuade simply set one up. Letterkenny Artisan Market at Carrygally Business Park now caters for 40 exhibitors.

For his entrepreneurship, Derek won a regional award during the summer and last week was chosen as national winner of the inaugural Irish Local Development Network award for unemployed people who set up their own businesses.

Derek’s disability is not obvious at first, but his sight has been diminishing since he was 12 years old due to a rare condition.

He applied for many jobs but could not get past the interview stage. He recalled dropping his magnifier and it rolling across the floor during one job interview: “That was me done for,” he said.

Blind entrepreneur wins national award for successful health food business

“I’m glad it happened now,” he said of the discrimination, as it prompted him to go it alone.

On scooping the national award, Derek said, “I feel nothing but gratitude. With losing my eyesight, this is very special to me. I made the job myself and I want a future to work towards, where as at one point I felt I was going to have nothing.”

He praised the staff in DLDC and the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance (BTWEA) scheme.

“They restored some inner belief in me that others had taken away from me. I learned that I am a person of value. Don’t set limits. Just because you can’t do one or two things, with help you can do as many things as you want to.”

“And the BTWEA was a big help because it enabled me to create a network of contacts. I was on a blind pension – a disability allowance – and the scheme gave me two years to try out my idea.”

The scheme allows participants to retain their social welfare payment, plus secondary benefits, on a reducing basis over a two-year period.

Derek’s success and the achievements of 17 other finalists were hailed as an example to 11,500 people currently availing of the BTWEA scheme.

“It shows what you can do with the right ideas, support and determination,” said Kathleen Stack, Assistant Secretary General at the Department of Social Protection, speaking at the awards event, in Dublin, on September 15th.

Meanwhile, Derek had advice for people who can’t find work because of lack of jobs, because of the recession, or because of discrimination over disabilities:

“You can do it for yourselves, with support. I wouldn’t have had the courage on my own to do it. The scheme gave me security and now the world is my oyster.”

He intends to invest his €2,000 prize money into the business and to begin employing people shortly. Busy times beckon as Derek and Anna also became parents recently.


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