Meet Alva Cullen, the mum who wrote a letter to Dunnes - and ended up creating a clothing line for kids with special needs

Alva Cullen was sitting in her kitchen one morning when she had a brainwave. She sent an email to Dunnes Stores asking if the company would consider starting a new clothing range. It was a gamble;
Meet Alva Cullen, the mum who wrote a letter to Dunnes - and ended up creating a clothing line for kids with special needs
Sorcha Cullen (13) pictured with her mum Alva. Dunnes Stores have designed a whole range of clothes for children with disabilites after Alva wrote them a letter explaining the difficulties Irish parents face finding clothes for their children with additional needs. Picture Ciara Wilkinson.

Alva Cullen was sitting in her kitchen one morning when she had a brainwave. She sent an email to Dunnes Stores asking if the company would consider starting a new clothing range. It was a gamble;

the target market was small, but she was passionate about helping children with additional needs.

Her mail was read by Margaret Heffernan, whose first reaction was that we need to do this, says Alison Killeen, a buyer with Dunnes. Just hours later, Alva got a call from senior management. That was February 2016; by the following November, the new stock was available.

Alva is the chairperson of the Special Hands Activity Group, a volunteer-led, community group based in Co Meath created to support children and adults with intellectual and physical needs. One of the parents in the group had asked her to organise a sewing class so she could learn how to alter her child’s clothes to fit.

Vests for tube-fed children or jackets for children who use wheelchairs are difficult to find and are very expensive. Alva, whose daughter Sorcha has Down Syndrome, felt that these parents were doing enough.

“They are 24 hours a day, seven days a week looking after their children,” she says.

“The last thing they need to be doing is making and altering clothes for them.”

After Alva contacted Dunnes, they asked if she would be involved in developing the range. “It took time to get it right,” says Alison Killeen.

Sorcha Cullen and her mum, Alva.
Sorcha Cullen and her mum, Alva.

“It wasn’t something we were used to doing before so we needed help. We made sure that the product went out and was fitted on children who were actually going to be the end user. We had to make sure that this product was going to work. There were a lot of tweaks.”

Alva’s connections with the other parents in Special Hands were invaluable.

“We’re not one specific group. We have children with extremely rare conditions, we have parents whose children have no diagnosis and we have parents whose children have autism and Down Syndrome and Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, Rett Syndrome.

"Some of our members would be only one of three, four, five in Europe who have their condition.

“It was a great group for Dunnes to be able to tap into because we have everything from extremely needs down to your basic special needs.” Alva says that Dunnes would send her samples and she would show them to the parents in her group.

“They would literally pull them apart. There were pen marks on the top, saying change this, move that, we need this.” Initially, the range was limited to the basics: vests and sleepwear. But Alva says that the simplest things made a huge difference.

One of Alva's designs is a special jacket for wheelchair-users
One of Alva's designs is a special jacket for wheelchair-users

“If you imagine somebody who is tube-fed, non-mobile and doubly incontinent, they are heavily dependent on care,” says Alva. “The person who is caring for them needs clothes that are suitable.

It’s all well and good when they’re nice and small and you can lift them up and put them into prams.

But then it gets to a certain point, they get older, they get bigger, they’re harder to manoeuvre.

Changing them is more difficult. When feeding them in public spaces, you’re trying to maintain their dignity.”

There are a couple of different styles of vest available. One has an access point where the tube that the person is fed through comes out. Another opens at the front, which is helpful for children with tracheotomies or those who have shunts (a tube that goes into the brain).

“Trying to dress those children is difficult,” says Alva, “and you’d have to be much more careful than throwing a top on your average child.”

The collars on the vests are envelope-style so that they can be put on and taken off quickly and easily. They also include poppers so that incontinence-wear can be held securely in place.

The fabric on the sleepsuits is 100% cotton. Alva says that her friend’s son, who sleeps in a hospital- grade bed, no longer sweats at night and doesn’t suffer any more from heat rashes.

“He is 18 years old, and his mother has bought one of everything in the range.”

Alva says that at the start it was all about practical things that could help children with additional needs and their carers. The first day that they went on sale, Alison says that she spent more time with a box of tissues than actually doing her job.

She couldn’t believe the number of calls they received by parents who were delighted with the range. She says that one mother whose little girl has butterfly syndrome bought five versions of a product; later, she went on to buy another 20.

Today, the range, which is available online, has grown to encompass a capsule wardrobe, including high-waisted jeans and joggers, leggings, tops, a dress and a wheelchair jacket.

Everything has been tested and retested, says Alva.

The aim is to make the clothing as comfortable, soft and lightweight as possible. Inner seams have been overlocked so that there is no rub. A little pocket has been included to tuck in the wash and care labels so that they don’t cause any sensory issue. The joggers have poppers all along the inside seam of the leg for easy access when changing.

When Milo Sokolowska, who has modelled for Dunnes, wore the joggers to school, Alva says that his nurse wanted a pair for all the children there. “She thought they were the most amazing thing. It just made her day so much easier.” Sorcha, Alva’s 13-year-old daughter, also loves the clothes.

“The jeans fit her like a dream. The thing with Sorcha and a lot of kids who have Down Syndrome is that she has a little sticky out belly and no bum so she needs higher-waisted clothes or else they just fall off her.

Jeans designed by Alva Cullen
Jeans designed by Alva Cullen

“Sorcha would be quite sensory about what she puts on, especially when she was younger. If she was irritated by fabric, that would be it, that’s everybody’s day would be ruined.

“There is something that we’re trialling at the moment, and I find it hard-pressed to get her out of it.

She loves it, because it’s so soft, there’s no seams and there’s no tags.” All the feedback collected by Alva has been taken on board by Dunnes.

“I’d say that the pattern makers in there hate the sight of me!” Her favourite item is the wheelchair jacket. She has many friends with children who are wheelchair users and Alva says that a lot of the time they’re squashed into the chairs and even with blankets over them, they’re still cold.

“Moulded wheelchairs are very specific and they’re quite tight. But the Superlite fabric actually uses the person’s body heat to heat the jacket and it’s light enough that if you have a moulded wheelchair, it’s thin enough to go on the person and put them into the chair and the mould still fits perfectly. They’re still perfectly supported.”

The jacket has been modelled for Dunnes by Fionnuala Holsgrove and she trialled it for a few weeks first. It was a revelation for her dad, who said that he had never been able to put a jacket on his daughter before because he was always afraid that he might hurt her. This one comes in two pieces and he was able to just pop it on.

Alva gave a shirt from the range to one of her friends for her autistic son to try out. It has a false button front and he loves it because he can dress himself, and it gives him a sense of independence.

A shirt specially designed by Alva
A shirt specially designed by Alva

Crucially, the range is affordable with prices starting at €4 going up to €20 for the jacket. One of Alva’s friends was buying vests for her daughter every three months. She had to get them in the UK and she was paying almost €90 a go. It’s the ‘disability dollar’, according to Alva.

Alison says that they have had a lot of requests for products for adults.

“All of these things are a long-term product and they take time to turn around. We want to do it right.” She is also hoping that they will able to develop a product suitable for children going through chemotherapy and cancer treatment.

Alva is thrilled with the results of her mail. “It’s phenomenal, there are still days where the team in Dunnes will ring me and I’ll walk away just pinching myself, going ‘Oh my God’.”

She is still collaborating with the company. “As long as they’ll have me, I’ll be there.”

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