Mairead Sheedy of the Muiríosa Foundation writes about putting in place Advocacy training and explains how the committee 'Advocate 4 One' come together to support each other.

Mary Stone and Catriona Carroll, Tanyard, Claire Walsh and Mary Tynan Dove House, Joe Kerr Rowanberry, Madeline Hyland and Josie Lynam Oak House.
Mary Stone and Catriona Carroll, Tanyard, Claire Walsh and Mary Tynan Dove House, Joe Kerr Rowanberry, Madeline Hyland and Josie Lynam Oak House.

The Muiríosa Foundation recognised the need for advocacy training for service users in the Laois/Offaly region and contact was made with a local Vocational Education Centre (VEC) to discuss the training required. Following a number of discussions, a training package was designed and a tutor from the local VEC agreed to act as facilitator. Over the six-month training period, representative service users attended the course from Dove House (Abbeyleix), Rowanberry (Portlaoise), Oak House (Portarlington), and The Tanyard Resource Centre (Tullamore).

The eight training modules included personal development and communicating one’s concerns appropriately, choices etc. Training involved preparing and presenting a short video on a personal experience (for example, asking for a key to your own home). This demonstrated the skills learned—speaking out about what you want and need, how to approach a situation and who to approach to address the issue. Each participant was assessed on their presentations, recordings of interview techniques and assignments completed on individual modules. The self-advocacy training programme was accredited by FETAC at Level 3.

Participants say:
“Most of us found the self-empowerment training module invaluable. We were enabled to recognise the need for change and to gain knowledge on how to make changes happen. The opportunity to discuss and share our problems also highlighted that we had issues, concerns and experiences in common, empowering us to voice them and make changes. Self-advocacy enables us to speak up for yourself and make decisions about your life. That is why this group is very important to us all.

“After we completed and graduated from the course we were presented with our FETAC Certificates along with other successful FETAC graduates. We told our friends about the course, and by now about 25 more people have successfully completed the training.

“When we’d finished the self-advocacy course, we did not want our journey to end. We had made good friends and we wanted to use the skills we had learned. In the beginning we met as a large group three or four times a year to discuss issues we felt were important to us as individuals and as a group. We told staff, the line manager and our families about our issues, and we felt that they listened to us and included us in decision making.

The self-advocacy group eventually became too large, as everybody who had completed the training wanted to be involved and it was difficult for everybody’s voice to be heard. So we decided to elect two to three people from four areas (Portarlington, Tullamore, Abbeyleix and Portlaoise) to form a committee to represent us and our issues and we voted to name the group ‘Advocate 4 One’.
Representatives were elected in each of the four general areas and a committee chairperson and vice chairperson were also elected. Each committee member on the regional self-advocacy group represents the views and opinions of their electors. Local self-advocacy groups are also operational. ‘Advocate 4 One’ has an email address and we contact each other to share information.

We meet every 2 to 3 months, and we are in contact with members of the committee on a regular basis. The agenda for our meetings is set by the members and we discuss topics of interest to us all. The group has achieved many important feats over the past two years, but most importantly we have a voice and are confident to speak up and represent ourselves and our peers. Some of the issues which we have raised are:
• Concerns on budget cuts to the organisation and how this will affect our service.

• Need for consultation with us about changes to our service and on local policy development.

• Why do staff or family members need to accompany me to visit the GP? –Some of us are happy with this arrangement, but others do not need this support. Sometimes the GP will direct the conversation to our family member or staff and ignore us and we are not happy with this.

• Need for us to have access to our own money as we need it.

• Need to have a key to our own home.

When the organisation introduced a new Person Centered Support Plan, members of the group felt it was too broad, too personal and intrusive on our private lives. We didn’t like that so many people could read it.

Mr Brendan Broderick, CEO of the Muiríosa Foundation, has met with the committee on a number of occasions to listen to our concerns and to discuss reasons why certain decisions are made within the organisation. We feel confident that we have a forum to speak and are being listened to by the Muiríosa Foundation.

At our AGM on 31 January, 2013, new committee members were elected and we are confident that they will continue to advocate on behalf of service users within the Muiríosa Foundation.