A group of local volunteers is currently building a state-of-the-art facility for autistic children at Summerhill National School in Athlone.
Work on the major extension to the school's autism unit has been underway since the beginning of July and the project is due to be completed in time for the start of the new school year in September.
The development is the work of the Athlone Chernobyl Aid Project, which has been organising trips to Belarus to complete building projects in poverty-stricken areas for over a decade. This is the first project the group has undertaken here in Athlone.
All of the construction work on the new facility is being provided free of charge and a number of local companies have helped out by lending equipment for free or giving concessions on the price of goods.
The fact that Athlone firm Domac Plant & Tool Hire lent its machinery to the project free of charge is just one of several examples of this generosity.
Staff at healthcare company Covidien raised €10,000 towards the cost of fitting out the facility. A Sponsored Fancy Dress Cycle, held in Athlone earlier this year and organised with the assistance of Dermot Brennan's DB Cycles, as well as pubs in the Left Bank area, further helped to defray the costs.
Billy Duffy of the Athlone Chernobyl Aid Project said the project would not have been possible if it were not for the generosity of the people of the midlands. It's anticipated that additional fundraising will be required before all costs are met.
The existing autism unit at Summerhill is a large classroom which caters for four autistic children. The number of pupils is expected to rise to six in September.
When complete, the new extension to the unit will feature an individual therapy room, a multi-functional sensory room and a life-skills room.
Summerhill NS principal John O'Neill said the facility would be of massive benefit to the school community.
"We were struggling to cope with the current autism unit of just one room. We applied to the Department for extensions to the unit in the past and those applications were turned down, but despite that we are now going to have a state-of-art autism unit here in the school.
"I'm eternally grateful to (chairperson) Martin Reilly and the members of the Athlone Chernobyl Aid group. The volunteerism and commitment that they've given to this is remarkable."
Mr O'Neill said that, in addition to the six autistic children who are to begin the new school year in September, Summerhill has a number of pupils with other special needs such as Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and milder forms of autism. He said the new unit would be very beneficial for these pupils also.
"We have six special needs assistants at the school and as much as possible we try to integrate pupils with special needs into the mainstream, particularly through areas like the arts, music and PE," commented Mr O'Neill.
The roof went on the extension to the autism unit last week and the project is on track to be finished before the start of the new school year. Its official opening is expected to take place in September.