The Respite Supports project was set up in September 2006. It began as a pilot project and was a result of a need identified by the HSE for residential places. The project is run by the Muiríosa Foundation (formerly the Sisters of Charity of Jesus & Mary) in conjunction with the HSE. It provides support to 22 people with a learning disability who live at home or, in the case of two of our participants, in their own home. The main aim of the project is to provide people with a learning disability, opportunities and experiences that will enhance their lives and become more valued members of their own community.
During the past three years, the project has proven to be a great success for both the participants and their families. I have developed a strong working relationship with each family and I feel it is very important to maintain this link as families need to be aware of what is happening in their son/daughter’s life. Each participant has a minimum of 4 hours of support during the week.
However, it is a very flexible arrangement, and depending on where he/she would like to go or what they would like to do, this may be up to 8 hours. For example, if they want to go the cinema in town or spend a day shopping in Dublin—the former could be done in four hours but the other would require more time.
Many of the participants are living at home with elderly parents and are socially isolated. The project has afforded these people the opportunity to wider their circle of friends and become more socially included within society. It also equips participants with skills and knowledge to access facilities and community groups that they share an interest in. I believe that there is so much that we take for granted, for example, a person with a learning disability doesn’t ring a friend for a drink; they wait for someone to ask them.
The project has afforded participants the chance to try new things; one young lady had never been on a train and she got the chance to travel a short distance; a group of young women also traveled to Cork by plane for a day trip and others went to a team-building day where they tried archery, orienteering and games. Last June, seven members of the group took part in the first Irish Performing Arts Festival. This was a fantastic experience as it was a real celebration of people’s talents. In order to provide the participants with experience of an audience, an open dress rehearsal was held in the GAA centre in Tullamore at the end of May. This was an invaluable experience and it also provided families and friends to see the drama. On the night, Clare O’Brien from Midlands Radio 3 came, taped the production and interviewed the group. In early June, we had a visit from Joan O’Sullivan from Nationwide; she filmed our rehearsal, interviewed the participants and filmed two of the participants at work. It was with great pride that they watched themselves on television when Nationwide dedicated a full programme to the festival, including our five minute slot. In the months of preparation for the festival, the group formed a close bond and developed respect for each other. It also improved confidence and each one gained a real sense of self-esteem.
The project has also been a success within the local community. There are seven people from the area who volunteer on a regular basis. Without their help, activities would be more limited. The volunteers have formed friendships with the participants and each one has brought their own attributes to the project. They maintain contact with the participants and organise their outings to suit each individual.
The participants had a valued experience this summer when we had the opportunity to run a coffee shop at one of the All Ireland Fleadh Competition venues. They really enjoyed the experience and met lots of different people from different counties and countries. They served people tea, coffee and sandwiches and helped with clearing the tables. In order for the participants to take a more active role in the Fleadh, participants had lessons in ceili dancing and they were able to attend the ceili on two nights.
While the project has certainly been a success to date, I think it is important to constantly seek more and to be a clearer voice for those who need an advocate and to lead participants in developing skills that will assist them in living as valued members of their community. I am very aware that I and the staff who work on the project must act as advocates for the people we work with. We have a responsibility to provide information to empower and enable people to access services and clubs within the community. With that in mind, the local VEC and adult education officer have agreed to provide training to some members of the project.
At present, given the economic situation, the idea of a project like Respite Supports is very appealing for those within the health service. It provides support in an innovative way and defers the cost of a residential place. It gives support to families and allows participants to continue living at home, while having their own life in the community.