Donegal mother Mary McLaughlin tells DonegalWoman.ie how she faces the risk of losing a vital service for her family and many families in Inishowen.
i.C.A.R.E. is a day and respite centre in Buncrana that supports parents of children and people with autism, but funding has all but dried up.
For mum of three Mary and her husband Kevin, i.C.A.R.E. is the only precious source of respite they get as their children enjoy a safe place to make friends and be themselves.
Mary and Kevin have three boys with autism Martin (19), Patrick (7) and Michael (6).
The bus collects the boys for the Saturday morning club, takes them to the centre for activities with their friends and drops them home… much happier, Mary says.
“i.C.A.R.E. give me and my husband the only respite we get in the week. We go for a coffee, do the shopping or pick something up in the town,” Mary tells Donegal Woman.
Mary is a full-time pastry chef, while Kevin is a full-time carer for their boys. They, like the parents of up to 100 people who attend i.C.A.R.E., need the services and are fighting to keep it open.
Live for the couple is hands-on and Mary admits there are many challenges.
“To have a child with autism takes so much energy and extra attention, to do that with three takes everything you have.”
“Recently we found a childminder who is an SNA to watch our children, and that was our first night out in two and a half years,” she said.
The McLaughlins were referred to i.C.A.R.E. by the HSE when they moved to Culdaff from Donegal Town two years ago. Since then, Mary has seen her boys flourish.
i.C.A.R.E. holds summer camps, Saturday activities, outings and work on the childrens’ social integration, self-care, cooking, arts and crafts.
“A place like i.C.A.R.E. is where you can watch kids thrive and socialise, be part of something where they are wanted.
“There is nothing wrong with people with autism, they just view things in a different way.”
“When you box in a child you lose a portion of who they are. In mainstream settings they try to keep to themselves. When you include them in something like Sonas or i.C.A.R.E. they get to be 100% themselves,” Mary said.
Mary and Kevin say they have fought for every bit of support they could get from the government for their family, right down to a wheelchair for their youngest. Six-year-old Michael had half his leg amputated after battling cancer when he was two years old.
“The system is so skewed but us parents are more battle hardened.”
“We are extremely grateful for the fact our little boy is alive, it has taught is a lot. We have friends with children with special needs who have buried their children, beautiful children who should have lived, they just had the bad luck that was handed to them that was ill health,” Mary said.
Donegal parents of children with autism have been told to bring their children to i.C.A.R.E., but it is not provided with any significant funding from the HSE or community grants. Over this summer the self-fundraised money has been used up, and the centre is at breaking point.
Their middle son Patrick is seven years old and has high-functioning autism. He is extremely bright and over sociable, in a non-typical way.
Mary said: “Before Patrick went to i.C.A.R.E. he was convinced that nobody liked him, not until he made a little bestie who he dotes on. He has friends now and is included. He is a beautiful little boy but was so lonely.
“There’s nothing worse than seeing your child lonely.”
“Other kids don’t understand, they were overwhelmed by his autism and they don’t get the things that make him him.”
Mary’s eldest son is 19 and is an example of how children with autism should never be underestimated, she said. Martin was told he would not achieve much in life, but he has since passed his Leaving Cert and is studying science in Derry.
— Mary McLaughlin (@ayerightenough) August 16, 2017
Martin is part of the Sonas youth group at i.C.A.R.E. for kids over 11 years. Now that he is 18, the limited state services he did have, like psychology, have all stopped, and they have had to find their own support.
“How can you judge these kids on their ability to give back to society that refuse to let them integrate?”
“I think that says so much about where we are headed as country. If you gave those kids a chance, and had a bit of faith, you could see phenomenal results.
“The majority of people who work with my children – doctors, nurse, youth workers and teachers – all bring out the best in them. Children with special needs bring out the best in people and are a massive contribution to society.”
Mary stresses that her family is just one of many who rely on i.C.A.R.E. and support services.
Kevin will run the Dublin City Marathon this year to raise help raise funds for a new building, which means getting up at 5am in the morning to train. They, like all parents in the area, are battling to keep and improve the place that brings so much happiness to their lives.
“If you were to take away the carers tomorrow, those parents would get up and do it for nothing, if you want to attack somebody who can’t fight back them what better group to pick than parents.
“The parents of Inishowen are exhausted, we are already running on fumes.
“We don’t want to be seen to be moaning, just asking someone to step in and help for the love of god.”