It all began in 1963 when a group of parents came together to help a friend and her child. There were no facilities for children with learning disabilities in the Athlone area at that time, and the group aimed to get a school going for children with moderate learning disabilities.
The sisters at the Bower Convent (La Sainte Union des Sacres Coeurs) provided a bungalow. The group organised helpers, drivers and volunteer staff. On the first morning there were eight volunteers and four children of various ages; before the day was over, they had four more parents inquiring about a place for their children. Within three weeks there were sixteen children in the centre.
The new service was named St Hilda’s in honour of Mother Hilda, who was Mother Superior at the Bower. Fundraising began immediately; finding good cooperation from the general public, more ambitious campaigns were undertaken. In 1966 the school expanded to two prefab buildings, also belonging to the Bower. A trained teacher was hired to keep things going, still assisted by volunteers. The school was recognised by the Department of Education in 1968.
The following year the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise provided a site for a permanent school, and planning began for a purpose-built two-classroom school. On adjoining land, a preschool and a unit for children with severe disabilities were built, with the help of a grant from the Hospitals Sweepstake Trust. The new school was completed in 1975. A portacabin housed a temporary training centre until seven years later, when the Adult Training Unit was opened, with a capacity for 40 adults.
St Hilda’s Services have expanded a good deal since the early days. Now a detached house in Coosan, Clonros, accommodates the preschool service. Unit Director Maureen Meehan and her staff provide training in language, communication, motor and daily living skills, as well as various types of play. Weekly sessions with a speech therapist are integrated into the preschool programme.
St Hilda’s National School caters for 30 students aged from 4 to18, from a radius of 18 miles around Athlone. As well as the academic and social curriculum, the school includes cooking, crafts, music and sports—swimming, gymnastics, horse-riding and athletics. Principal Jarlath Keaney aims to develop students’ decision-making skills, which will enhance their community participation and prepare them for further training.
The Adult Training Centre further prepares young adults for independent living. In their normalisation and vocational programmes, trainees do woodwork, building and paving, and candle-making. Unit Director Mary Nee emphasises the development of social skills, encouraging the inclusion of the trainees in their local community. In 1997 a Horticulture Unit was developed, proding meaningful employment and creating a small service industry in the gardening/ landscape area.
Mary Doheny is Director of the two semi-detached group homes in Roslevin Lawn—ordinary houses where residents’ individuality and independence are encouraged. Some of them attend the Adult Training Centre, and some are in open employment.
O’Dowd House is a resource centre for adolescents and young adults, with both in-centre and external programmes. Many of the groups’ activities stretch out into the local community, using the local swimming pool, bowling alley and public transport. Another link in the St Hilda’s network is Community Liaison worker Nuala Hamilton, whose focus is social integration—she organises a friendship scheme, summer camps, scouting and horse-riding.
McCormack House, opened in 1983, is a high-support service for individuals with severe or profound intellectual disabilities. It has sections for younger and older service users, a high staffing ratio and a large range of specialist seating equipment and functional aids. Unit staff (led by Anne Moriarty), physiotherapists, occupational therapists and family members cooperate in developing individually tailored, flexible programmes for each service user.
Over the past three years, an Intensive Support Community Home has been developed with the aim of providing full-time residential places exclusively for persons with a severe or profound intellectual disability, to replace the current respite service.
Thirty-five years after it was started by a group of parents, St Hilda’s still sees itself as a ‘bottom-up’ organisation. Nuala O’Brien, one of the founding parents, continues to serve on the Board of Directors. Eighty per cent of that Board are parents, helping to ensure that a quality service is identified to meet the needs of each individual.