This year has had a lot of challenges for Irish Wheelchair Association members. But for Monica McGowan Hughes, services coordinator for IWA’s Athlone Centre, it is important to focus on the positives and keep going because our services and supports are needed now more than ever

“The frontline workers here really have that willingness to help and that willingness to learn,” says Monica, speaking about her team in Athlone. 

Across the country, Irish Wheelchair Association centres and services were disrupted time and time again through the year due to COVID restrictions, but the organisation simply adapted and made new plans for members. “I’m so proud of our frontline workers here,” says Monica. “You really get out what you put in and people really appreciate the work you are doing. All that matters is that we can keep going forward and delivering and making sure people can still get a service. People are at the heart of what we do” she says. 

However, COVID hasn’t just challenged Irish Wheelchair Association’s workers, it has also challenged funding. Members can no longer share lifts in the bus. Equipment in the centres and additional PPE and adaptations to the centre all cost money. “COVID is costly,” says Monica. “That’s why fundraising is so important to maintain the same level of service.” 

The Sunshine Youth Club in the IWA Athlone Centre highlights the generosity and powerful impact of local people. 

We started back 17 years ago with the Sunshine youth club, which is a social group for children and young people with physical disabilities. We had no money and no premises. Now we have a lovely premises and the club has never wanted for anything for the kids because of the generosity of the local Athlone people- they have subsidised that project all the time. We get no grant money, it’s all purely from fundraising in the local area.

Monica believes the biggest benefit of the youth club is the confidence the young people develop after they settle in. “We’ve had kids crying here who don’t want to leave their Mam, and then they begin staying on their own and growing in confidence. They get to meet their peers. Often they are quite isolated in their community and at school, but then they meet people…they can chat together and make friends and they aren’t judged by their appearance or the fact that they use a wheelchair. They are judged on who they are and what their personality is like.” 

Ryan Minagh, aged 14, has been a member of the IWA Athlone Sunshine club since he was about 7yrs old. “I liked everything,” says Ryan, remembering the things they did in the club before Covid. “I liked going on trips. We went shopping, bowling and to Dublin Zoo to see the Christmas lights. My Dad brings me to the club and then he goes. I have loads of friends there. We get on like a house on fire” says Ryan. 

For some people, we are the only people they will see.

John Tynan and Maureen Lee from IWA Athlone drove out to Ryan and his family during lockdown with an envelope of activities. They visited and checked in on Ryan and the family. They were one of the few visitors the family had during the height of the restrictions earlier this year. 

The family are looking forward to the youth club restarting again. “We understand services can’t start back yet with COVID,” says Ryan’s mother Tania “but Ryan is looking forward to a bit of normality back again”. “John and Maureen called out with the packs during lockdown. We didn’t really see anyone because no-one could come and visit, so it was lovely, it was a break and a chance to catch up. It’s nice to know you’re not forgotten. That is his little club.” 

Maureen Lee manages the fundraising at IWA Athlone and has organised the Sunshine Club on top of her daily work since it began. During the lockdowns she has been out and about in the community checking on members. “For some people, we are the only people they will see,” she says. 

Maureen is quick to point out how critical each and every donation is to the organisation as the Sunshine Club relies solely on donations from the public.

Irish Wheelchair Association has launched a Christmas Appeal to support vital services like the Sunshine Club. Click here to make a donation.