30 years ago Karen was an IWA volunteer. Now she is a wheelchair user campaigning for access in Athlone.
Karen Soedring has been coming to the Irish Wheelchair Association Athlone community centre two days a week since she began using a wheelchair twelve years ago.
Karen adores spending time with the close friends she has made at the community centre “we have such fun,” she says. “The laughs we have. I don’t think I have ever left this place.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Karen visited the centre on Wednesdays and Thursdays were she and her friends would take part in a
variety of different activities. “We did different courses like gardening, computers, arts, crafts…”says Karen.
Karen and her group took some courses in horticulture, and this has been very enjoyable. “I learned an awful lot every time,” Karen says. “I have forgotten a lot. But I did learn the names of all the flowers and shrubs. I have a diploma now to say I am a gardener.”
I learned a lot. I learned the names of all the flowers and shrubs. I have a diploma now to say I am a gardenerKaren Soedring
About six years ago the Irish Wheelchair Association centre in Athlone created a small garden on the grounds of the centre. They planted shrubs, flowers, herbs and created spaces to relax and come together. The garden was used regularly for small parties and gatherings.
A garden needs regular work and attention, but when lockdown came, Karen was worried that the garden at the Athlone centre would waste away
without anyone to care for it. But as soon as COVID restrictions lifted, a group of volunteers spent a day working on the garden and posted pictures
of their work to the Irish Wheelchair Association Facebook page.
“When I saw those pictures that morning I cried,” says Karen, “because I had put in so much work into that garden. For years together, we had sewed potatoes, beans, onions, we had worked with our hands in the soil… We had planted things down there. I was part of it, and my first thoughts when I knew we weren’t coming back for a while was that the garden was going to go – but no. I was so happy that morning.”
Irish Wheelchair Association has continued to provide outreach services to over 4,000 people with physical disabilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring its members retained a service.
During COVID, the team called to see me in the bus every second week. We joked that they came with their ‘brown envelopes’Karen Soedring
“During COVID, the team called to see me in the bus every second week,” says Karen. “We joked that they came with their ‘brown envelopes’. We got crosswords, puzzles, colouring pages, recipes. We got a few leaflets, plenty of things. I’ve coloured in everything because I love those things.”
In 2016 Karen became involved in a local group, Athlone Access Awareness, which has become a real passion for her. The group meets every second week to try to improve the accessibility of Athlone town for people with disabilities.
“First of all, we started in Golden Island (a popular local shopping centre), and we managed to get six wheelchair parking spaces,” according to Karen. “They are right at the front entrance. We nagged to get those spaces, although the management there are very nice and easy to work with, so that helps” she says. “We are also approaching other big shops in the town.”
Recently Karen has volunteered to represent the group on the Disability Committee of the Public Participation Network in Westmeath. They have ambitious plans and are working with local businesses and the local authority.
“You can tell straight away when people are going to listen and hear you out. Some are not interested, and you know you need to move on. You can see it in their smile and their eyes” she says.
There has been lots of work underway in the centre of Athlone town over the past year, upgrading roads and paths significantly. “A lot of these recommendations were made by us,” according to Karen.
By coincidence, Karen volunteered with the IWA over thirty years ago when her children were young. She assisted members and organised fundraisers for over five years. “When I was here in my 40s you had to just get on with it yourself. Now they have such a team, and they are such hardworking people.”
“They have two new buses which are lovely. My last day here I went home on the old bus, and it was so shaky. You couldn’t hear on that bus and the ramps were very rough. So coming here on the new bus I felt like a queen!”