Things have certainly changed in the 31 years of The O’Neill Centre, but one thing has remained constant: the support given to the centre by the people of Kilkenny.
And as Lucy Dooley retires from her role as director of services at the end of this month, her hope is that the centre will continue to be able to serve Kilkenny children long into the future.
Located in the Butts area of the city beside the Fr McGrath Centre, the centre came into being back in 1981. A group of parents who had children with physical disabilities all found themselves having to travel to Dublin to bring the children to therapy or to see a consultant.
“They had other young children to look after too,” Lucy recalls, “and they thought, ‘we should have our own services here’.”
They approached Bishop Peter Birch and he referred them to Mary O’Neill, who was responsible for the development of services for preschool and playground for children in the community – and who would go on to be the centre’s namesake after her death in 1983.
Local GP Dr Joe Sweeney also got involved and was chairman for over 20 years.
“Because I had my own children I had stopped working,” recalls Lucy, a Laois native who had a background in nursing. “And I used to get phone calls from Mary O’Neill asking me what she should do, so I would give her whatever she needed.”
In its early days when the services started out, “a physiotherapist with a roll and mat in the boot of her car would set up wherever Mary O’Neill could get floor space,” she recalls.
But soon the dedicated building was ready, and at its opening had the staff, five children and a group of volunteers.
“The committee were very far-sighted” in deciding to align with the national organisation now known as Enable Ireland, she says, as “being part of the national organisation gave us the know-how” in addition to benefiting from services such as finance, budgeting and human resources.
There are now 113 children and young people attending the centre’s service from the Kilkenny community care area, from babies up to students finishing their Leaving Certificate, with 37 staff.
With services from physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language, and family support services to nutrition and psychology, Lucy attributes The O’Neill Centre’s success to the parents, the staff and the community.
“One of the key factors with ourselves is that we work in partnership with the parents and that is very important, because a huge part of our role is to train and assist parents,” she says, adding of the staff: “I don’t believe any person has ever said ‘no’ to any request.”
And although the centre is grant-aided by the Health Service Executive (HSE), it has a fund-raising target of €170,000 “just to hold the services we have – and I don’t think we have ever fallen short of the target that has been set,” thanks to support from local individuals, businesses and groups.
That support also includes the people of the Butts, who help to look after the centre as “wonderful neighbours and friends.”
“The O’Neill Centre is very close to my heart,” Lucy says. “Other people will judge the work I have done; I won’t. But I would love to see it continue to develop. One of the things we are very proud of here is that, in spite of the cutbacks since 2008, we have not had to make any service reductions here, and that is absolutely and entirely down to the people of Kilkenny and their support.
“The O’Neill Centre has many, many friends in the community and I would hope that they would continue to support the work that The O’Neill Centre is engaged in because our aim is, and always has been, to serve each and every child and their families to reach their potential,” she says.
“That would be my wish, that it would continue to be there for the children who need it.”