FUN, FIT AND FORTY: St Christopher’s Services celebrate 40 years of service provision in Longford

by Kathy O’Grady-Reilly

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There is something about the dynamic atmosphere of St Christopher’s Services that makes them very remarkable. The rule of thumb that one can adopt when visiting services for people with intellectual disability is to ask oneself ‘how would I like to trade places with any one of these service users?’ If the answer is ‘that wouldn’t be too bad’ or ‘I wouldn’t mind if a family member of mine had such a service’, then that place can be awarded the Q-mark in my book. St Christopher’s is such a place.

David, Thomas and Sadie have attended St Christopher’s on and off for 40 years.

St Christopher’s Services are now, and always have been, a positive integral part of the life of David Kelly from Kenagh. He says, ‘I came here at the beginning, when the school was starting off. It was a nice place and now it still is. I work in the canteen now, not the school. I set tables and clean up. I’m good at that. They go swimming on a Friday and out to town for walks. It’s not a bad place, I wouldn’t be without it.’

Thomas Nugent from Edgeworthstown recalls, ‘When I was a young lad, I went to the Rathowen School … then I came to the prefab … at the beginning … with Winnie, Pádraig and Séamus. I’ve been coming here down through the years … I like it here and I wouldn’t leave here.’

Sadie Sorohan from Drumlish reflects, ‘I don’t know what age I was, but I know I was very small … I was with Mrs McCord, a great teacher, in the old prefab along the road, up the town … it was a nice school … I used to come on the bus … I liked school there … she was nice to me … I used to do reading and writing, puzzles and jigsaws … things like that. I went away from St Christopher’s for many a long day … but I’m back now and I like it a lot.’

Frontline readers may remember the tribute to service founders in an article by Mary de Paor in Issue 43 (July 2000, p. 23), describing how it was in Irish disability services almost half a century ago. In the same way, Pat O’Toole, General Manager of St Christopher’s, paid tribute to Mrs Sylvia Dawson and her colleagues, acknowledging their foresight, vision and commitment to achieving services of the highest quality in County Longford. In her book The first crucial years: 1964-1975, Sylvia Dawson outlines the many difficulties encountered by the founding members in attempting to establish services from scratch, and the founding of the County Longford Association for the Mentally Handicapped in 1964. Pat O’Toole said: ‘We could say they created person-centred planning 40 years ago, we hope that the torch of today holds the same ethos and works tirelessly towards achieving the maximum potential of each and every person in our services.’

(is this a review of a book by Pat O’Toole—or his speech at a celebration??) Pat O’Toole recalled that the work of St Christopher’s could not have proceeded without close working relationships with the various funding agencies, the Sisters of Charity of Jesus & Mary and the Midland Health Board. He referred to ;the struggle in the past’, with reference to the infamous Section 65 funding arrangement whereby health boards could allocate, but were not obliged to provide, funding to services. Pat stated his belief ‘that the model of partnership between health boards of today and the non-statutory agencies is a good one. It is the development of the professional model with the human touch that makes no obstacle too big to overcome.’

At the celebration of 40 years, Pat O’Toole took the opportunity to thank the generosity of people towards St Christopher’s, stating ‘We estimate that the fundraising over the years would, at today’s value, yield €8 million to €10 million. If that value was extended to the voluntary work done over the years, we could add another €40 million!” – (in other words, a million for every year of its existence).

Many aspects of St Christopher’s Services cannot be valued; they must be regarded as ‘priceless’. Long may St Christopher’s enjoy the level of community and family involvement and the on-going success in terms of its development and new initiatives. The logo for St Christopher’s is a lit candle. May the candle never be quenched, or at least let it continue to shine until such time as:

  • disability bills and legislation ensure a right to access such quality services as St Christopher’s for all people with intellectual disability in Ireland;
  • our services all promote self-determination and person-centredness of the highest standards to make the NDA code of practice in PCPs redundant, and
  • the economy and social responsiveness in Ireland promote quality of life and equality of opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to be taken as a given.

Happy 40th Anniversary, St Christopher’s. Go raibh míle maith agaibh to all those who have made it a living entity!

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