SIMILAR to the crystallization of many a good or great idea there was no bolt of lightning from the sky, no earth moving experience. Two like-minded people simply felt they could do some good, and they went for it.
And now, with a feeling as if the beginning were only yesterday, husband and wife, Pat and Jet Phelan find themselves celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of their caring, loving community.
Adi Roche, the founder and Chief Executive of the Irish based charity, Chernobyl Children International, will be on hand this Saturday to officially launch a weekend of celebrations for Kingsriver Community in Ennisnag, Stoneyford, County Kilkenny.
Kingsriver Community, which provides residential and day care programmes for adults with learning and physical disabilities, is a registered charity that is fully funded by the HSE and supervised by a Board of Directors made up by voluntary members.
“There was no big calling,” explained Pat, the CEO at Kingsriver, of the beginning of the story. “There was no big philosophy, but we both had a disabled sibling. In the beginning our aim was simple – to provide some of the most vulnerable people in our society with the things that most of us take for granted, things like work satisfaction, a skill, a family and a home.”
Worked in Europe and US
Pat, who hails from Rathdowney, County Laois, and his Dutch born wife, Jet had worked with and gained valuable experience with other charitable organisations’ in Europe and the US, and while they expressed appreciation and applauded the work of these groups, they had a vision of their own.
The beginning was simple. The Phelans’ were living in Piltown at the time. Calling on the experience of their previous work, they recognised the need for respite care. They started taking people with special needs for a break or holiday in their home.
“We started taking them for weekends and holidays,” recalled Jet, who is the House Manager in the Community. “The people loved to be asked to someone else’s house. Then we started thinking maybe we would start up something ourselves so that we could take people on holidays and relieve others, a sort of respite service.”
That was the beginning. Around 1986 the first tentative steps were taken in the Kingsriver story. The current property which skirts the Kings River was bought, hence the name given to the Community.
Jet is a qualified primary school teacher, and from day one in that profession she found herself attracted to the children who were the most difficult in class. The behaviour intrigued her and she decided to study special education,
Pat, a graduate in engineering from the then Carlow Regional College, worked in the UK and France until 1980 when he moved to the Netherlands and met Jet. They both travelled to the US until 1984 when they decided to move to Ireland. The Phelans’ were introduced to Camphill where they spent around 18 happy months.
When they moved out of Camphill they went to live in Piltown where Pat set up a furniture making business. However, they missed living with other people. They started taking in “the lads” as they refer to them – the term is used in a non-gender sense with the consent and agreement of ‘the lads’ – immediately from Camphill.
A struggle financially
“The early years were a struggle financially because we had to build up the living quarters and develop parts of the site,” recalled Jet.
“We never wanted to be a type of institution,” Pat insisted. “We just wanted a home for everyone. That has always been the case. Our children grew up here. This was always our home. Often the lads we cared for didn’t have a home, and were more than content to call Kingsriver their home.”
Their children, Aisling (25), twins Rebecca and Tomás (23) and Sinead (19), were integrated into the whole scheme of things and they continue to be an integral part of ‘Team Kingsriver’, if you like.
The local community of Stoneyford and surrounding districts embraced the community, with children playing in the Kingsriver grounds and attending birthday parties and so on there.
In the beginning, Kingsriver Community could cater for five people overall. Today they have six full time residents, including Pat’s brother, Gerard, and 20 day care people. Seven volunteers, five of them engaged through the European Voluntary Service (EVS) support the eight staff employed by the community.
“The volunteers learn a lot of practical skills, but through doing, not through formal education,” Jet said. “The support of Leargas and the whole EVS scheme has been a huge help to us.”
Kingsriver is a registered FETAC provider and delivers accredited programmes, including a complete progression route in woodwork from Level I to Level 5 and the possibility of a formal FAS apprenticeship.
Other parts of the programme includes Arts and Crafts such as screen printing, mosaics, textile techniques, wood/limestone sculpture and carving, horticulture, independent living skills which teaches people how to cook, use washing machines and so on as well as Health Related Exercise which includes swimming, bowling, outdoor pursuits such as walking, mountain trekking and yoga.
“Nothing is beyond a challenge for them, assuring that it is safe and that they have the capacity to do it,” Pat explained. “We are not afraid to put a challenge in front of them after carrying out a risk assessment.”
Jet insisted: “We look at the ability rather than the disability.”
The other key players in the Kingsriver story are Noel Doherty, a former Apprentice Carpenter of the year who is the woodwork facilitator; Polly Donnellan (crafts); Saturio Alonso (sculpture and carving); Aoife Cashin (screen printing facilitator, who is a specialist in the area of behavioural problems and social skills) and Barbara Wheeler Connolly (FETAC co-ordinator) and Kazue Roberts (admin).
At Kingsriver they endeavour to create an individual programme for all those in the community. They talk and listen to “the lads” and find out what they want to do and learn.
“That is how we develop a programme around them, a Person Centred
Plan, which is reviewed regularly,” Pat explained. “The goal is that everyone will reach their full potential, whatever that is, and to become contributing members of society. They want to feel needed.”
It is all about genuine integration.
Down through the years over 100 EVS volunteers from all over Europe have worked at Kingsriver.
“There is an opportunity in Ireland for young Irish people to have this experience as well,” Jet explained. “But many Irish young people don’t know about, and don’t avail of this.”
On Saturday and Sunday an information stand on EVS will be mounted during the Kingsriver celebrations for any young people who may have an interest in international volunteering. Indeed, a big number of former EVS volunteers will join the celebrations.
Of the future, Pat, who is 59 and theoretically could retire in seven years time, said it was an important aim for his wife and family that Kingsriver should remain a thriving organisation and that it will preserve its ethos and uniqueness.
The Silver Jubilee celebration events will kick off in the Kingsriver grounds on Saturday (4pm) with the official opening of the celebrations by Adi Roche. This will be followed by the opening of an exhibition of arts and crafts, including a display of pictures from the past 25 years in the community, followed by acts such as Jim Maher, a local seanchaí (6pm), Vickers Vimy string band (7pm), Colm Gray (local singer/songwriter), the McDonald Trio and the Backdoor Blues band.
There will be an Open Day, family fun day, on Sunday with a festival of music starting at 2pm. The highlight will be the appearance of the Rob Strong Band. All welcome. Admission costs 5 euro.