'We are all on this journey together' - people with special needs gaining valuable work experience on Kerry farm
It is Monday morning but for Martin Sheehan and Amy O'Dea it never holds the dread that particular day of the week promises for some.
Monday is the day they get to spend on George Kelly's farm, helping out with the animals and all the other jobs that need to be done on a suckler and sheep farm.
Both are adults with special needs and, for the past number of years, have been participants on the Kerry Social Farming Project at Hazelfort Farm in Listry, Co Kerry.
Both use the services of St John of God's in Killarney and the social farming project has become part of their weekly routine.
On Wednesdays it's the turn of two adults with Down Syndrome.
Hazelfort Farm is one of 14 taking part in the Kerry Social Farming Project, with six more coming on board shortly.
The project comes under the auspices of the South Kerry Development Partnership and is run by a steering group that includes representatives from St John of God's, Kerry Parents' and Friends' Association, Enable Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland (Kerry), Cúnamh Iveragh, Kerry County Council and the North East West Kerry Development Partnership.
It also receives funding from the Department of Agriculture through CEDRA (the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas).
George Kelly got involved four and a half years ago when the project was in its infancy and he was director of the South Kerry Partnership.
"We had looked at similar projects in Leitrim and how we could do something for people with special needs," Mr Kelly told the Farming Independent.
"I said I'd have to put my money where my mouth was and step forward. We're doing it on a voluntary basis, the farmer doesn't get paid and I think that's the sustainable model."
Funding through CEDRA employs a coordinator, who liaises between the agencies, the farmers and the participants.
"We were impressed by what we saw in Leitrim but their model was slightly different, where the farmers get paid but we felt that wasn't sustainable.
"Now in hindsight, I think we made the wise decision because we're getting funding and that's the model the Department are adopting at the moment, the not-for-profit model," Mr Kelly added.
Amy O'Dea from Rathmore had never been on a farm before she started helping out at Hazelfort a few years ago. She looks forward to Monday.
"I love working with the animals. We look after them and feed them, make sure they have water and make sure they're taken care of," she says.
"I'm not frightened of animals at all. I'm an animal lover."
Martin Sheehan from Castlemaine is no stranger to farming and enjoys working in the outdoors with the animals.
Hazelfort Farm has 25 suckler cows, 20 sheep, four horses, five goats, ducks and even a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.
Amy and Martin are accompanied by Gerry Smith, a support worker and instructor with St John of God's. He can see the obvious benefits of the project and how it has boosted Martin and Amy's skills and independence.
"They really love it and it's a great outlet for them. There's the social side of it as well, meeting people who come in to the farm, and chatting with George," he said.
Mr Kelly says they try to frame the programme for the day around the weather and the time of year. He also gets a lot from it.
"There's the camaraderie and the work is easier when you have a couple with you for the banter and the work," he says.
"It's a great way of getting over the fear of animals and boosting confidence but it has been a learning curve for all of us.
"I think that's proof our model is working. When I see the difference it makes to people, I think it's worthwhile."
The Kerry Social Farming Project was chosen to represent the county in the Pride of Place awards in Donegal in September.
Mr Kelly would advise farmers interested in getting involved or starting a similar project in their county to have no fear.
"We think it's very positive that people are getting employment as well and we would like to think that social farming has played a part in this," he added.
Some of the challenges that had to be overcome included getting insurance and transport, scarce in rural areas where public transport can be non-existent.
Local Link Kerry helped them out in this regard, providing a car and volunteer drivers.
Mr Kelly hopes to see the project growing and would like to bring more sponsors on board.
He says there's clearly an identifiable need for the project and getting to know the participants' families has made it seem more worthwhile. They're also developing an achievement award for participants.
"The agencies have been very supportive but we're all on this journey together. It's a new departure from what happened in the past and everybody is happy when they see the difference it makes," he said.
Leitrim project the template for national rollout
The Department of Agriculture has been providing funding to social farming projects since 2016 and has committed over €1.5million from the Rural Innovation and Development Fund.
The concept was first developed by the Leitrim Development Company and since then has been adapted and implemented by other organisations around the country.
It is defined as the practice of offering activity on family farms as a form of a social support service.
The participating farm remains a working farm but invites adults with special needs to become involved in the day-to-day activities of the farm.
The aim of the project is to promote inclusion and foster good health and well being for participants.
Leitrim Development Company has been awarded two contracts by the Department to support and develop social farming in Ireland in 2017.
It hopes to establish a Social Farming Ireland Network involving all stakeholders.
It will also collaborate with University College Dublin to establish best practice.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed says this will be key to the development of social farming on a larger scale.
"In my opinion, they are undoubtedly achieving the goal of promoting social farming as a viable option for achieving improved quality of life, greater inclusion and community networking for people with disabilities," he said.
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