It’s been a tough year for Grace O’Donnell, Rachel Fitzgerald and the rest of the staff and volunteers at the 321 Down Syndrome Kerry Shop in Tralee – but a small victory this month might be just the signal that things are starting to turn for the better.
he shop was chosen as the winner of the ‘Public Choice Award’ in the recent Christmas window display competition organised by Tralee Chamber Alliance. With the win, they came away with a cash prize and a sizeable budget for advertising, two things that will help the charity shop – located at 11 High Street – to do more of what it does best: educate the public and raise awareness of Down Syndrome.
The shop – which boasts, as Rachel describes it, “a hidden gem” book shop upstairs – has been running for five years now, and in that time, under the stewardship of Rachel, Grace and their team, it has gone from strength to strength. Their biggest and best accomplishment during this time has surely been their steadfast commitment to giving both employment and training opportunities to those with Down Syndrome, something which Rachel touched on with us this week.
“Not everyone has had a chance to meet someone with Down Syndrome, unless you’re directly affected, so opening up the shop, a big part of it was giving people that chance to meet and see ability in those with Down Syndrome,” she said.
“We found that a lot of adults with Down Syndrome were finding it hard to find meaningful work, and so we said to ourselves that we need to be prepared to do ourselves what we expect other employers to,” she continued.
“So, what we did was we set up training programmes in the shop. Some adults with Down Syndrome would come and would maybe volunteer for an hour, while others would come in to train for specific things. As it stands now, we are actually employing one adult with Down Syndrome for three days a week,” said Rachel.
Due to the varying degree of levels of ability in adults with Down Syndrome, Rachel said that she and those in the shop have had to come up with unique training methods that suit each person’s ability levels.
“Some are very capable and very chatty, whereas others are quiet but can still get on with their work, so we’ve had to make the training very individual. A lot of it is about assessing their needs and abilities and finding ways of helping them to work independently,” she said.
“Conor, who is the man who is working with us three days a week now, he has a set list of tasks that he works on. Some of them are simple things like turning on the lights, clearing the hangers from the day before, he’d be involved in hanging out the clothing, cleaning of the bookshelves, hoovering, washing, arranging stock, that kind of thing. He’s doing exactly same as a lot of our other staff, it may take him a little bit longer, and he may need clearer instructions, but once you put the time into getting these systems in place, it enables him to work independently,” Rachel continued.
“He seems very happy, and I know that his parents are delighted because they feel that he is so capable and it gives him a great sense of worth. He’s 25 years old, and sure what person that age doesn’t want to be out working,” she said.
As we fast approach the year anniversary of the first lockdown here in Ireland, I asked Rachel how the past year has been for the service, and while she admits that the loss of the business side of things is of course not ideal, she said it’s that loss of routine for those with Down Syndrome that has been the toughest aspect of it.
“For adults who have Down Syndrome, and we also have other adults with additional needs who volunteer in the shop as well and for them also, continuity is important, and so the stop-start of the last year has been tricky for everyone. Their routine has been taken away from them,” Rachel said.
“They can forget how to do a task, and they would sometimes have to re-learn them,” she said.
Apart from this, though, Rachel says that when they are allowed to re-open once more, the shop is in a strong position, and they hope to continue to raise awareness in the community of all the work that they do and what they have to offer as a service.
“Overall though, I feel like we are going from strength to strength, and one aspect I want to make people aware of is our upstairs book shop. It’s a little hidden gem we have. It’s done very tastefully, and it’s just a nice environment.
“We have a little seating room so we love when people come in and relax and read the books which tend to be very good quality, there is a great range and they are reasonably priced as well,” she said.
“Honestly, for a lot of the volunteers that we have there, it’s a social outlet for many of them to meet other people and, really, it has become like a family down there,” she said.
Finally, speaking about their recent award win in the Tralee Chamber’s Christmas Window Display competition, Rachel said they were delighted to win it and joked that at least it meant people were aware of the shop’s existence.
“We were absolutely delighted because we did put a lot of work into it. We had the theme of travelling home for Christmas, and we made a big effort with lights so that people could see it during the night. I suppose, too, that it was lovely for us because it felt that people were actually engaging with us in the community,” said Rachel.
“They saw the value of what we were doing, and I suppose that it showed too that we’re being noticed, which is always a nice feeling!
“The advertising package, too, will be hugely beneficial to us just to inform those people who might not know about us and what we do,” Rachel added.