Soccer legend Roy Keane has praised schoolchildren whose heroic fundraising efforts for the Irish Guide Dogs (IGD) have helped transform lives.
The former Manchester United great, and assistant manager of the Republic of Ireland team, was speaking during a surprise visit to a Cork school with staff and dogs from the charity.
Gaelscoil Uí Ríordáin in Ballincollig won the VIP visit after taking part in the IGD’s Heroes appeal in April to mark World Autism Awareness day.
Students Colin Ó Maolalaidh , 13, and Fionnuala Ní Mhurchu, 12, whose families are supporters of the charity, sold ‘hero’ dog pins and wristbands in the school, raising over €1,700.
Keane, a long-standing supporter of the charity, said the money will make a real difference to people who need guide dogs and assistance dogs.
“We take a lot of things for granted — simple things like walking around town,” he said. “But these dogs give people an opportunity for independence. It’s good raising money but it’s nice to know what exactly it does.”
He was accompanied by Judy McGrath, and her son, Seán, 15, who was diagnosed with autism, aged three. Seán, a second-year student at Kinsale Community School, got assistance dog Dexter when he was eight, and said he has helped him develop social skills and independence.
“When you’re different, people don’t talk to you as much,” said Seán. “If you see someone different, you kind of step back to give them the space they need but at the same time, that ends up making you very lonely.
“But when you have a dog, people love dogs and will come up and talk to you. On rare occasions, they won’t talk to you, they’ll just talk to the dog. But most of the time, they talk to me and the dog.
“Before I had Dexter, I didn’t care what we were doing. I just kept my head down, held mum’s hand, and just went wherever we were going.
“But when I got the dog, a kind of responsibility came over me. I began to think ‘where am I meant to take the dog?’ and I became interested.”
Judy said autism makes life that “extra bit hard” but Dexter made it “extra easy”.
“He made it so that Seán could do what all of you guys do every day — with no stress,” she told students.
“There are some kids with autism who can’t do what we’re doing today, and we want to be their voice, to tell you how beneficial Dexter has been for us.”
The IGD, which offers it services for free, will spend €5.2m this year helping 200 people across its service areas. State funding makes up 15% of its income, which is ringfenced for visually impaired services.
Even though the charity’s €1.2m assistance dogs programme accounts for more than half of its dog partnerships, it gets no state funding.
Charity CEO Padraig Mallon said there is huge demand for this service but they can help fewer than half the families in need.
“We have an incredible team and programme and would love to do much more,” he said.
It takes two years to train a guide or assistance dog and around €38,000 to breed, train and support a single working dog partnership for its eight-year working life.
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