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September 17, 2018

Young people with Down syndrome are learning to grow and cook their own food, thanks to almost £600,000 raised by National Lottery players.

The four year Grow Cook Cater programme is run by L’Arche from their allotment in south Belfast, and is helping young people with learning disabilities feel more confident and develop their skills for independent living, volunteering, and employment. Activities include growing fruit and vegetables, cooking, taking part in social activities, and completing work placements.

Back in 2016, L’Arche received £573,164 from the Big Lottery Fund to run this project. We chatted to Conor Boyle, now 24, about how L’Arche has improved his life. Conor, who has Down syndrome, has been taking part in activities at L’Arche since 2013.

Conor said: “I love being outside in the fresh air, it doesn’t matter what the weather is like. I like weeding, construction work, digging and seeding. I’m really strong so I’m good at using the wheelbarrow and building things. I help build the allotment beds and then plant seeds in them to grow food.

“I’m not great at cooking yet but I’d like to learn how to cook the food I grow. I have a vegetable patch at home which I look after — I grow potatoes and carrots.

“I feel really good when I’m out working at the allotments, I’m proud of the work I do there. Sometimes I help out other people and show them what to do. One day I’d like to have a job working outside.”

Conor lives in south Belfast with his mum Rosie, dad Michael, and sister, Louise. Since getting involved with L’Arche, his family have seen a big change in the young man.

“It’s great that there are projects like L’Arche that Conor can go to. I know he loves it and it makes me happy seeing him come here and seeing the enjoyment he gets from it,” said Rosie.

“Because of the Grow Cook Cater programme, he’ll be able to develop his skills more and increase his confidence in his abilities. He started the vegetable patch at home because of everything he’s learnt here so far.”

As well as being involved with L’Arche, Conor also works with the Orchardville Society, a charity that supports people with learning disabilities into employment and training.

Rosie said: “Conor also works at the business centre at Orchardville which is good work experience for him but he’s definitely an outdoors person — he loves being out in the garden and the allotments. He also helps out at conservation volunteers and attends Tap 2, a course at college run through Orchardville.

“Academic activities and school have always been hard for him. So he thrives more by doing outdoor activities and working with his hands. It’s definitely good for his health and well-being and has given him a goal for something he would like a career in. Getting the opportunity for work experience with the new project at L’Arche will be a good stepping stone for him to gain employment.”

L’Arche is based on the Ormeau Road and their allotments are on the Castlereagh Hills overlooking Belfast. They have over 100 raised beds which were built by young people with learning disabilities.

To learn more about the Grow Cook Cater programme, and about L’Arche, check out their website:

Brain Injury Foundation

September 17, 2018

“One of the big challenges for people with brain injury is isolation,” says Frank Dolaghan, Chair of the Brain Injury Foundation, based in Camlough near Newry. “Many survivors have communication and/or mobility challenges often meaning that they can’t leave the house. Survivors could be cut off from society for months, even years or just a few weeks.”

Frank knows from personal experience what the impact of head injury can be on a family. 25 years ago, his son Tony fell from a forty foot cliff. Tony, who was 22 at the time, was in a coma for two weeks and spent another three months in hospital. When he finally returned home, he had to learn to walk, talk, and eat again.

“The person who comes out of a coma after the brain injury is very different from the person who was there before and many people can’t cope with the changes,” Frank explains. “People can lose their friends, lose their social network and almost always lose their job, if they had been employed.

“Many will be physically quite capable, but because of their brain injury, other challenges like memory loss, lack of concentration, inability to manage their moods and emotions are prevalent.  All these things can affect relationships with family and friends.”

After Tony’s injury, Frank and Aileen also suffered from isolation. They became full-time carers for their son but were left feeling like they had no support network. As Frank explains, their experience was not unusual.

“Carers are the most important contact in the lives of the brain injury survivors.  They are there 24/7 providing round the clock support and they can become isolated as well.  The first few months after a brain injury, many people will call to the house but that drops off. It’s a fact of life, everybody’s life is ongoing and they have other things to do. In many cases friends find it impossible to adjust to the changes in the brain injury survivor and it is like learning to become acquainted all over again.”

But Frank, Aileen and Tony refused to be beaten.

In 2012, they joined up with other carers and brain injury survivor who were in a similar situation. Together, they founded the Brain Injury Foundation, an organisation that offers support, advice, and camaraderie for brain injury survivors and their families and carers.

Over the years, the Brain Injury Foundation has been supported with over £450,000 of money raised by National Lottery players. The organisation has gone from strength to strength, and now has more than 100 members from across Newry and Mourne, Armagh, Banbridge and Dungannon.

In everything that the Brain Injury Foundation does, survivors of brain injuries and their carers are always at the forefront.

Frank said: “The group is service user led completely. It is run, directed, managed and controlled by people with brain injuries and their carers.

We don’t have paid staff at the minute. We look after ourselves through an elected voluntary management committee where the vast majority of us have direct experience of brain injury.”

Thanks to National Lottery players, the Brain Injury Foundation are able to run all sorts of activities for their members, including cookery classes, independent living skills, table tennis, boccia, and even a coffee bar. They’re using their experiences and skills to improve the lives of brain injury survivors and their carers.

As Frank said, “Mainly it’s providing both survivors and carers with time out, helping to build relationships and having an opportunity to socialise and relax. In this way we are making a real difference to the lives of our members.”

To learn more about the Brain Injury Foundation and the fantastic work they’re doing, check out their website:

The Bytes Project

September 10, 2018

Two years ago, the Bytes Project in Belfast received £464,827 of money raised by National Lottery players for their Exodus 500 project, boosting employment skills of some of Northern Ireland’s most isolated young people and supporting them to inspire others.

The Exodus 500 project, which will run until 2019, works with young people aged 16-25 in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Limavady, Magherafelt in Lisburn. These young people gain the skills and experience they need to overcome barriers to employment, including lone parents, those in care or homeless, or those from an ethnic minority background.

We chatted to Anthony Turkington, now 24, a young man who was supported by the Bytes Project. From a difficult start in life, Anthony has been able to transform his life and become a role model for other young people like him.

Anthony was just 17 years old when he first became homeless. Family problems led him to moving between friends and family for a year and a half, eventually getting involved in antisocial behaviour.

Then he moved into Flax Foyer in north Belfast, which is temporary affordable accommodation for young people who are homeless. The Bytes Centre runs out of Flax Foyer, and offers mentoring and training to residents three days a week. It was at the Bytes Centre that Anthony found the support he needed to get his life back on track and inspire others like him,

“I was reluctant when I first came here to Flax and I didn’t want to bother with anyone. I was involved in anti-social behaviour and alcohol, because I didn’t have anything else to do. I was desperate. I had no hope for my future and I never thought my life would be stable enough to be able to move on,” he said.

“I had a lot of anger and frustration at that time. I have dyslexia, and if I wasn’t able to do something I just cracked up. I had left school without the qualifications I needed for further education. But Bytes helped me get back on track with qualifications. The people at Bytes taught me how to rise to the challenge and find creative ways to deal with the dyslexia.

“It’s really the people that make the difference. The youth workers at Bytes talk to you on your level. They treat you like an equal. They take your needs into consideration and work with you whatever way works for you.”

With support from the Bytes Project, Anthony has successfully graduated from university and now hopes to help other young people in a situation like his. And, thanks to National Lottery players, the Bytes Project is able to continue the fantastic work they do with projects like Exodus 500.

The Exodus 500 project will provide other young people like Anthony with the confidence and skills they need to transform their lives. It works with the young people to help support them as individuals, offering them mentoring, team building, employability skills, health and well-being courses, and work, college, and business experience.

Kinship Care

September 3, 2018

Since losing their mum, Yvonne, on Valentine’s Day 2016, Caoimhe Lawell (26) and her little sister Eileen (12) have been inseparable. Caoimhe is more than just a sister – she is Eileen’s legal guardian, making Eileen one of thousands of children in Northern Ireland looked after by family members when their parents aren’t able to.

Things haven’t been easy for the sisters, now living in north Belfast. But through the difficulties of their new relationship, Kinship Care have been on hand to offer invaluable support and advice.

For Caoimhe, there was no question of looking after Eileen after their mum’s death.

“I wanted Eileen even if it meant I’d end up with no money, no this or no that. I didn’t care what it meant,” said Caoimhe, who moved from west Belfast to north Belfast so that Eileen could stay at the same school. “I was determined we’d get by no matter how hard it was at times.”

Although Caoimhe initially tried to balance caring for her sister with her job in retail, she eventually to leave work to reduce her stress levels. But the financial blow of this left the little family reeling.

There are around 12,000 children across Northern Ireland being brought up by grandparents and other family members because their parents are unable to care for them. Family members are not eligible for the same support as foster carers, which means some kinship carers struggle to make ends meet.

But help is at hand. Kinship Care support families like Caoimhe and Eileen across Northern Ireland. Since 2013 the organisation has received over £1 million of money raised by National Lottery players to support their incredible work.

Jacqueline Williamson, CEO of Kinship Care, said: “Last year we supported 892 kinship carers and 994 children and young people across Northern Ireland, many of whose carers have had to give up work to look after them and many of whom struggle financially.

“The National Lottery funding we have received from the Big Lottery Fund has made a huge impact on our ability to engage and support people,” added Jacqueline.

Caoimhe was directed towards Kinship Care by a friend, and the impact has been profound.

“They have been a great support, not least financially,” said Caoimhe. “The Kinship support groups too have been great because all the carers are in a unique situation as we’re so emotionally invested because the people we look after are our family.

“And Eileen enjoys the social activities they organise, meeting other young people in a similar position to hers.”

Kinship Care also helped to finance art therapy for Eileen, helping her to come to terms with the loss of her mother, and furnished her bedroom when she and Caoimhe got a new house together.

Caoimhe still has to deal with all the usual challenges of raising a teenager – including disagreements over chores! But with the support of Kinship Care and the girls’ wider family, she’s confident about Eileen’s future.

“Since P6 Eileen’s wanted to be an Irish teacher,” said Caoimhe. “I just want her to do as well as she can and be happy.

“Bad things happen in life but you just have to get on with it and we’re lucky to have each other.

“I’ve never reached the point where I simply didn’t know where to turn but no-one knows what’s round the corner and at least I know I have Kinship Care behind me and they’ll move mountains to help.”

To learn more about Kinship Care in Northern Ireland, check out their website:

Cruse Bereavement Care

September 3, 2018

When Lorraine McNeill’s mother, Agnes, died, Lorraine’s loss was as profound as her devotion. But through this tragic event Lorraine met her new husband-to-be, John Caulfield. Although their paths crossed in a series of chance encounters, it took the worst storm to hit NI in 50 years to bring the pair together.

Lorraine’s GP first signposted her to Cruse Bereavement Care, which supports people coping with loss, after Agnes’s death. After six weeks’ counselling she heard about Cruse’s Beyond Words project, a friendship group funded by money raised by National Lottery players. The project offers people suffering bereavement a chance to meet and talk through activities from drama to creative writing.

Lorraine started attending last March, and first met John, also from north Belfast. He had joined in 2014 after the death of his wife Eileen in 2013. He and Lorraine got talking on the group’s residential on the north coast.

“On the way home the group stopped at Portballintrae, which mum and I loved,” says Lorraine. “I went for a walk but when John realised I wasn’t back after it started to rain, he went looking for me.

“I thought it was so lovely that someone who hardly knew me would do that. We sat together the rest of the way home.”

But still no ‘date’ was planned… until, that is, the day of Storm Ophelia when once again fate threw them together.

John takes up the story: “Neither Lorraine nor I could stand the loneliness of our homes after our loss. Eileen and me were together 27 years. We lived for one another, didn’t need anyone else.

“I could understand Eileen passing away, but I couldn’t understand why I’d been left. We should both have gone, I thought.

“I couldn’t stay in the house so I’d walk – rain, hail or shine – until I was so tired I had to sit down. Nothing and no-one could help me, I thought.”

A year after Eileen’s death, on one of those walks, John found himself outside Belfast’s Ulster Hall where Cruse was holding a promotion day for Beyond Words.

“One of the organisers there asked me to their friendship group – I only agreed to go to get away from him. When the date came, though, he’d sent a taxi for me!” says John who admits to being terrified when he walked into that first meeting.

“It was the first time I’d talked about Eileen in over a year. I was very emotional. There were lots of tears.”

For all that though John was still sceptical that the group could help – until, that is, he was persuaded to go on a Beyond Words residential.

“I wasn’t looking forward to that either but I did start to open up and as I told my story and listened to other people’s I began to feel a bit better. I didn’t want to go home. I thought that would be the end of it – but it was only the beginning.”

Through Beyond Words John began creative writing classes and even penned a play about bereavement, performed in Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

The couple’s stars aligned when Lorraine started attending the friendship group as well.

“Our paths crossed a few times at events but it was the day of the big storm when we realised this was something special,” beams John.

“Lorraine had called into a coffee shop but it was closing early because of the gales and she ended up on the Shankill Road, which is where we ran into each other.

“We walked the length of the road and when it came time to part we made an arrangement to meet again.”

It was a date – and many more followed. As Cupid’s arrow finally found its target, John popped the question last January – and Lorraine said yes!

“We’re getting married on June 22, 2019 and we can’t wait! Everything’s booked,” says Lorraine.

Eleanour Ellerslie, the project manager, says the support has made such a difference: “I have known John for four years and saw how the Friendship Group helped him and brought out his creative side. It’s wonderful to see such a happy ending for him,” she says.

“Having a Beyond Words wedding was one of the project outcomes we never anticipated. Their story shows that there is life beyond the death of a loved one.”

Perhaps though the final word should go to the bride: “When I went to Beyond Words the first time I wasn’t looking for romance. I was grieving. I hadn’t been on a date for 25 years and I never thought this would happen. But it has and it’s all just wonderful. We just couldn’t be happier.”

Thanks to National Lottery players, Cruse are able to continue supporting people like John and Lorraine through the hardest parts of their life – and through the happiest!

To learn more, visit: