Still in transition towards her retirement, Anne Gunning met me to discuss her 32-year career with the St John of God Brothers in Dublin. Hiring staff for the most recent addition to Carmona Services, a school for children with severe and profound intellectual disabilities still demanded her attention that week.
Originally from Thurles, Co. Tipperary (Semple Stadium is named for her father, Tom Semple, who died when she was very young), Anne was appointed the first lay Director and first female Director of a St John of God Service in 1989, which illustrated the new dynamics of the Order’s insights for the future.
Anne joined the staff of the St John of God Services in 1969, to begin a one-room special care unit in the basement of Dunmore House in Glenageary. A group of ten children with intellectual disability attended a full-day programme, in which their needs were served with the assistance of two volunteers. In 1970 the first purpose-built unit was constructed on site with some healthboard funding.
In 2002, Carmona Services provides day services for 289 and 96 residential places (including 21 respite), for people with moderate, severe and profound levels of intellectual disability in the catchment area of South County Dublin and East Wicklow. The Eastern Regional Health Authority (formerly the Eastern Health Board) regulates the flow of funds to voluntary bodies in the East Coast area. The recent change in allocation of funding is still in its early phase of implementation.
Anne Gunning is a treasure trove of experience gained from her early days as a general nurse, to her pinnacle position as Director of Carmona Services. Although nursing was her first calling, she quickly combined the healthcare area with education. She has advocated a multidisciplinary team approach to provide a holistic range of services for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
The most significant changes over the past thirty years, Anne feels, have been a greater awareness of intellectual disabilities, an understanding that people with a disability have ability, the growth and development of day and a variety of residential and respite services (e.g. group homes), and a growing realisation of the plight of parents who are given the overwhelming news of a special-needs child. She spoke in detail and with empathy about the difficulties presented to parents faced with the responsibility of 24-hour care for a child with special needs—of always worrying about getting home on time for parenting duties and of the constant stress and strain caused by such a lifestyle. Support services for new parents are as yet insufficient to help them work through the exploding feelings which range from denial, guilt and blame, to anger and resentment. Anne shows an understanding of parental views and approaches in a manner not usually associated with someone so high up the administrative ladder. But then, perhaps, she is not the prototype administrator.
In 1974, Dunmore House pioneered a link between the Maria Montessori teaching method, by employing Montessori teachers for the newly established pre-school. In 1976, Anne visited the St John of God Brothers service in Westville Grove, New Jersey, and brought back innovations in early services, which earmarked Dunmore House as progressive for its time, in an Ireland still coming to grips with its obligation to people with disabilities as citizens of the state. Continuing education—forging links with Trinity College—was a great achievement in 1995.
Anne speaks fondly of her early days with the Order. In the 1970s, a temporary-care (pre-respite) programme was offered to children to give their parents a break. All staff volunteered to take the children to Brittas Bay and other locations, to mobile homes and even on camping trips for 10-14 days! She remembers it as enjoyable and inspirational, in an era when a great deal of staff overtime was given freely without remuneration.
Innovative plans such as the link to Montessori, were the beginning of many creative approaches to service provision at Dunmore House (which became Carmona Services in 1996). Transition year students from secondary schools in the area spend part of their year at Carmona Services, which the centre views as an opportunity for early awareness of an able generation for children and adults with a disability. Some gardaí in training at Templemore spend two weeks of their preparation at Carmona. This long-established link gives future law enforcement officers an understanding of disability which, aids them in future dealings with members of the public. This exposure works both ways—it also offers service consumers an opportunity to see gardaí as positive figures within the community who can be relied on for help in difficult situations.
Sport has played a big part in Anne Gunning’s life, not solely from her GAA connections, but in her own interest in tennis, hockey and running. She feels that the Special Olympics have engendered a healthy participation in sport for all those involved and overall increased the value and variety of sports in a complete programme. Music and drama and art are also part of Carmona Service’s attempts to develop the individual, through a choice of activities to meet their needs in a holistic way.
Anne has a strong belief in the value of the philosophy of St. John of God, who was known for his concern for marginalised people who were ignored by others. She told me that Brother Laurence, when he was Provincial of the Order, used to say that she never stopped asking for what she felt was needed by people with special needs in South County Dublin.
With gravity, Anne acknowledged what service providers seldom ever reveal: that people with disabilities deserve inclusion in society as a right, that they should be the centre of the universe for staff and administrators. Every effort to ensure a welcome and warm environment should be a priority, to offer parents respect and support for what is a lifelong challenge of care for their son or daughter.
Although she looks forward in retirement to more time for her passions for the theatre, music and sport, Anne Gunning remains on several committees with the Order’s services. Hopefully this arrangement will benefit even more people who can learn from her considerable knowledge of meeting the needs of people with disability in Ireland.