Monday 25 September 2017

Ray O'Callaghan: Field of Dreams is giving hope to adults with Down Syndrome and their parents

Ray O'Callaghan is the store manager at M&S Cork, chairman of Down Syndrome Cork and the brains behind Field of Dreams. He lives with his wife, Brenda, and their three children - David (18), Harry (15) and Grace (11)

Ray O'Callaghan, M&S store manager and chairman of Down Syndrome Cork. Photo: John Allen
Ray O'Callaghan, M&S store manager and chairman of Down Syndrome Cork. Photo: John Allen

I'm up pretty early in the morning for my job. I'm the manager of Marks and Spencer Cork. At 6am, everyone else in the house is asleep - my wife, Brenda, and our children, David, Harry and Grace. I don't have breakfast at home. Instead, I have a coffee in the city and a quick read of the paper. I'm in work for 7.20am.

I look at the performance of the store the previous day from a sales perspective. Then I spend time with the teams on the sales floor, setting priorities for the day. I started in M&S when it opened in Cork in 1998. I took it on as a one-year job, thinking that I'd travel the world, but I worked my way up to be manager in the store. It's a really good company. It has been very supportive of my work with Down Syndrome Cork.

I finish work at 6.30pm, and then my other work starts. I've been the chairman of Down Syndrome Cork for the past eight years. Our daughter Grace was born with Down syndrome. I decided that I wanted to get involved, because state services are proving incredibly tough to access, and DS Cork is there to provide more regular services. When I joined, they had just employed their first speech therapist. They were working out of a boot of a car, giving speech therapy in different locations. A few of us decided that that wasn't good enough for kids, so we set up a centre. We now employ five people. We give services to about 50 children every week. DS Cork gets no state funding. It's purely voluntary - driven by parents, mostly parents of children with DS. If you spent five minutes with Grace, you'd understand why I'm doing all of this. She is always in great form and she sees the positive in everything. To us, she has abilities. The word disability is something we do not want to use. Grace has changed our family life in so many ways. She made us understand what is real.

I'm 49 now, but what happens when I'm 69 and she'll only be 31? What happens if one of us passes away? That is a huge worry. I have two older children, and they have a choice. They can go to college if they want. Grace doesn't have that, but this is what we are trying to change. She should be able to have some opportunities in life. The reality is that 95pc of adults with DS over the age of 20 have no work. That is staggering. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. We are going to show people that adults with DS are capable; that they have skills and can be employed.

One night, I watched a TV programme about five adults - some with DS and others with other special needs - working on a farm. It was a bit of a trial. They were out in the open, doing meaningful work that challenged them. It gave them a sense of normality; that feeling of getting up in the morning for work. They had a sense of dignity and purpose. It was a light-bulb moment. At the time, my daughter was going to a care farm - where kids go to work with animals of a smaller size like horses, pigs and chickens. She would come home covered in shite, but invigorated. At the next DS Cork meeting, I suggested that we should build a farm. Everyone thought I was nuts, but, five years later, it is happening. It's a five-acre site in Curraheen. The gardener Diarmuid Gavin turned the sod on it yesterday. We call it Field of Dreams, inspired by the film. This is just a few of us doing something that we believe is right for our kids.

The Munster Agricultural Society have leased us the land on very favourable terms. Then we got funding from the Department of Health and Department of Agriculture, thanks to Kathleen Lynch, Simon Coveney and Minister Creed. We got planning for the site, but we were short of money, so we started talking to the business community. And now we have some key sponsors - M&S, ESB, Pepsi-Cola Cork, Dansko Foods and Keelings Fruit. The idea is that adults with DS will spend half the day in the garden learning and growing, producing and selling. This is not about the amount we produce, but the quality of the learning. They will learn horticulture and then, thanks to a tutor from the Cork Education Training Board, they will develop life-skills, like how to answer the phone, how to serve coffee - general, meaningful skills. After two or three years here, the companies are interested in taking the next step with our adults by employing them.

Field of Dreams is a massive stepping stone for them. It's about giving them opportunities, and it is also giving hope to parents of adults with DS, too. It's about putting on gloves on a cold day, washing your boots at the end of the day, getting the bus there, and even learning about going to work when you're not in the mood. It's about real life. It's a purely magical project. When we explain it to people, everyone is keen to get involved. We will need volunteers, too. It's easy to give out about things, but instead of moaning, we are doing something. Because of that, people are listening to us and giving us great support

When I get home in the evening, Grace will run at me and throw her arms around me. That puts everything into perspective. Of course, the two lads are lovable, but, being teenagers, the last person they want to be hugging is their dad. Grace is on the iPad while I have my dinner. Her speech isn't great, but she chats away about her day. She won't benefit from Field of Dreams for quite a number of years, but we'll make her part of the experience.

I'm in bed by 10.30pm. I wouldn't be able to do any of this without the support of my wife, Brenda. She is great at bringing reality to an idea. I've always been a dreamer, but she knows that I don't talk about dreams unless I can turn them into a reality.

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

fieldofdreamscork.ie

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life