Helen O’Callaghan looks at an innovative horticulture project which aims to give work experience to people who have Down syndrome

IT BREAKS his heart when Ray O’Callaghan considers that his 11-year-old daughter won’t have the same opportunities as his sons.

Grace has Down syndrome. She is an amazing child — magical, he says. “If you spend just 10 minutes with her, you’d see it. She has ability.” But the hard reality is that limited choice faces young adults with Down syndrome as they leave child services. “They get so much from the State and various organisations up to age 18 or 20. Then it begins to dwindle. Services drop. Their future is difficult, really tough, as avenues start closing.” It’s not a future the 48-year-old dad and chairman of Down Syndrome Cork wants for Grace. “She is as capable as society wants her to be,” he says. He and wife Brenda have two sons, David, 18, and Harry, 14. “We don’t have to worry much about our two lads. There’s a path for them. In many cases, there’s no path for adults with Down syndrome.” This, he says, isn’t “fair, right or human”.

Cork-based Dave O’Halloran’s daughter, Meghan, 25, has Down syndrome. For young adults like Meghan, Dave says there’s always somewhere for them to go.

“But it’s literally [just] somewhere for them to go. There’s a lack of meaningful activity. What Meghan has always wanted — and what we want for her – is that she can go out to work and get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”

Both fathers know if things are to change, parents must make it happen. Ray’s eureka moment came while watching a Channel 4 TV programme about a celebrity farmer who took five young adults with Down syndrome onto a farm.

“These teens had no prior experience of working on land. It was a bit of a light-bulb moment to see the difference having meaningful work made to them and their families.”

Meghan’sdad, Dave
Meghan’s dad, Dave

Ray brought the idea of the ‘care farm’, a concept with proven merit internationally, to the next meeting of Down Syndrome Cork.

“I suppose people thought I was mad, trying to get a farm going.” But the Field of Dreams seed germinated.

Four years on, a three-acre site at Curraheen, Cork, has been leased. Planning permission has been granted — the care farm will comprise sensory gardens, market garden for cultivation of fruit, vegetable and farm produce, as well as modular buildings for roll-out of education initiatives for young adults with Down syndrome.

Award-winning garden designer Diarmuid Gavin has come on board. “My wife read Ray’s letter first. She said I couldn’t ignore it. That was it. I was hooked,” says Gavin, who calls it a fantastic project. “I’m an outsider looking in and I see huge opportunity to make an important, motivating and fun impact to the garden. I want it to be therapeutic, interactive — a safe haven for people with Down syndrome to enjoy.

“I’ve been working on a garden in the UK that emphasises engaging and being active with the landforms — we don’t roll down hills like we used to and I want to bring that back.”

The Field of Dreams horticulture education/work project is groundbreaking in Ireland in that it’s designed solely for adults with Down syndrome. It’s hoped to begin work on the site in January 2017 and to have the first participants (adults with Down syndrome) helping seed the farm later in spring. “This will be a real three-acre farm, a work site. [Participants] will be growing, producing and selling — and getting all the learning experience,” says Ray.

It’s hoped to set up a profit-sharing scheme for participants out of produce sold. “We want to give our young adults the opportunity to enjoy normal work, see the fruits of it, have fun with it and express themselves to maximum of their ability.”

Meghan with herdad, Dave
Meghan with her dad, Dave

Talks are ongoing with UCC and CIT around development of life-skills courses for participants. Baking and cooking will be taught. A café is planned, enabling skills in dealing with the public. The receptionist will be someone with Down syndrome.

The project is expected to cost €.5m with annual running costs of €100,000-€150,000. M&S is on board as a corporate sponsor for three years (Ray is M&S Cork store manager), donating funding towards building and ongoing costs of Field of Dreams. “Positive conversations around funding are happening with the State,” confirms Ray.

News of the project has generated enormous goodwill and has spread fast through the community. “Adults with Down syndrome and their parents are contacting us, who were never involved with Down Syndrome Cork. It’s a true telling story of what’s out there [and what’s not]. We haven’t had one parent say ‘this won’t work’,” says Ray.

Dave O’Halloran sees Field of Dreams hugely benefiting Meghan. “She’ll be working with people with the same disability in an open environment. It’ll help her independence and personal development.” Meghan — an Irish Special Olympian triple medal-winner in the 2003 World Games — says it’ll be brilliant. “I love fruit and veg. I’d like to grow those. I love to work outdoors.” Like the message of 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Ray believes it will be a case of ‘build and they will come’. It’s expected 40 participants will work on the farm each week. Adults with Down syndrome are able to be challenged, says Ray.

“They’ll have had a hard day’s work, good colleagues around them and have got something from it.”

Companies/individuals wishing to donate to Field of Dreams should www.downsyndromecork.ie


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