Mighty Oaks boasts tree of many branches

Playing table football at the Sign Out were (from left) Roisin Daly, Michael Maxwell, Liam Shiel, Lucy Aribey, and Ali Zaman. Pic: Gerry Stronge

The lack of social outlets for children with differing needs and abilities can create feelings of exclusion and isolation – particularly in rural areas where this void in services is more common.

In the absence of these services, one group of parents in Portumna have created the Mighty Oaks Arch Club.

Since June, the Arch Club has been providing a secure social environment for people with special needs, their siblings and their friends.

It enables children to learn, form friendships and, above all else, have fun –  and as one of 50 groups nationwide, it is part of an expanding network.

The person behind the club is local woman, Colette Flaherty.

Colette’s son, Paul, has autism and, now in his teenage years, she wants to help him find his identity and prepare for his future.

“The main thing is to get them something that they are interested in – so they can be themselves.

“Some have autism, some have dyspraxia or Down Syndrome and some don’t have any particular disability – they just struggle in school with friends,” explains Colette.

The group meets in the Sign Out Youth Café on a weekly basis and every month, puts on Pilates and yoga classes.

“They are learning new skills – they might be learning to do something so small to other people but it is a big thing for them,” says Colette.

The Arch Club  provides an environment where the children can meet with likeminded people and form meaningful friendships.

“Down the road, it would be lovely in the years ahead that they might meet up – at least they won’t be so isolated.

“We also want to get them involved in the community so that people will see them and be able to say, ‘hi Paul’ or whatever because they will know them.

“If everyone knows them, that is giving them an identity and that is the least that anyone deserves.

“Autism doesn’t define a person – it is a part of them but it doesn’t define the individual,” says Colette.

The group is characterised by the fact that it is led by parents and Colette believes more change is needed to make things a bit easier on them.

“People are exhausted fighting for every little thing. Most people can let their kids go to classes and drop them off – we still haven’t got that freedom.

“As parents, we are putting in 100 per cent of our energy and a lot of it goes unnoticed.

“Every town needs to cater for those with different abilities and interests and not only cater for mainstream sports and classes – if we, as parents, don’t do this, no-one else will,” says Colette.

See full feature in this week’s Community Matters. If you know of a story we should cover – or an area of the county we should feature – in a future Community Matters, just email stephen.corrigan@ctribune.ie