This week Athlone Irish Wheelchair Association celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Sunshine Club, a youth club for people with disabilities from Westmeath, Offaly and Roscommon. The Sunshine Club is a monthly youth club that brings children and teenagers with disabilities together to socialise, have fun and take part in activities together. The club is organised by volunteers, parents and Irish Wheelchair Association staff and is funded entirely by donations from the public.

The Sunshine Club’s 20th Anniversary party took place recently with games, music, ice-cream and entertainment, funded by donations and gifted by local businesses across Athlone. 

Members of Athlone Sunshine Club celebrating the club’s 20th anniversary

“We are so proud that the Sunshine Club is a fun place for young people with disabilities to come and hang out, have fun and meet their friends,” said  Monica Hughes, Service Coordinator, Irish Wheelchair Association, Athlone.

“We set up the club because young people love to meet their friends and have fun together. But often children with disabilities are the only one with a disability in their class or the only wheelchair user at family parties etc. and they can’t join in the same way as the other children. But this club is made for them. All the young people are like them and the fun is designed to cater for their abilities,” says Monica. 

Monica McGowan Hughes, Service Co-Ordinator IWA Athlone

“The Sunshine Club is so important because it allows young people to meet and socialise with other people their age with disabilities,” said Kathleen Brady, Coosan, Athlone.

Kathleen was a driving force in establishing the club in 2004 and was motivated at that time by her 9 year-old daughter Emma who didn’t have anywhere to socialise and have fun with other children with disabilities her own age. “Before this, local kids with disabilities didn’t have any clubs. They could go to other children’s activities but often they weren’t able to take part. So here everyone has something in common. Over the years they have had so much fun!” 

Kathleen says the generosity and support from donations, local fundraisers and volunteers from around Athlone is what has kept the Sunshine Club operating for such a long time. “The club is completely run on donations; we have no formal funding. So all the activities and trips are paid for by fundraisers and donations. It’s down to Irish Wheelchair Association’s Athlone branch of fundraisers and our volunteers, that’s how the club has stayed running all these years. Without the people and the fundraising support we wouldn’t be open.” 

Carly Flynn (13) from Monksland, Athlone is a Sunshine Club Member and loves to socialise with the group. She said:  “The Sunshine Club is great because there are lots of activities and we make new friends.”

Carly Flynn, Sunshine Club member

Sarah Malone (23) from Belmont, Offaly began coming to the Sunshine Club when she was nine years old and helped to organise club activities as she got older. Sarah was delighted to come back to celebrate the 20th anniversary. “It’s a fun place to hang out, it’s safe and you have a lot of adventures like going to the zoo, or going to a shopping centre, there are always things to do or you can just hang out with your friends” she said.

Sarah Malone

 Sarah remembers feeling really happy that there were other children in wheelchairs when she began coming to the club, “unfortunately near me there was no youth club for me to go, so I was really happy to come to Athlone. I always enjoy my time here. It gets me out of the house and lets me hang out with people with disabilities, not just able-bodied people all the time,” she said. 

Mary Gaynor, an Irish Wheelchair Association member living in Athlone, was also celebrated at the Sunshine Club event to mark her 90th birthday. Mary became a volunteer with IWA Athlone in 1989 and helped to establish the Sunshine Club alongside parents, volunteers and staff. Mary has always been a strong supporter of the club and the fundraising activities needed to keep the club open “I think the Sunshine Club is great because it has brought children together and gets them out together. They really enjoy it and the people who run it really enjoy it too.” 

IWA Volunteer Mary Gaynor whose 90th birthday was marked at the Sunshine Club’s celebration

Monica Hughes of IWA loves to remember all the children and teenagers that have enjoyed the Sunshine Club since they began 20 years ago. “The club brings our young people so much fun, a fun all young people deserve. We are so grateful for the support from around Athlone over the years for our little club. I hope people know how much joy and craic has been had thanks to their support,” she said.