Valerie and Oisín Lowry, who officially opened the new Autism unit in St. Joseph's National School in Summerhill last Thursday pictured with Brid Kelly, John O' Neill, Principal, Fr Ray Milton and Martin Reilly. Photo molloyphotography.
Athlone's only dedicated autism unit for children has been officially opened at St Joseph's Primary School, Summerhill.
The state-of-art facility, built at a cost of just €24,000, is all the more remarkable given that it was fully constructed and funded by local people without any State help.
And, it was completed in just over a month and half last year, thanks to tradesmen from Athlone Chernobyl Aid, who gave their time and labour for free to the project.
Speaking at the opening on Thursday last, Principal John O'Neill, said that the development serving the entire Athlone area would not be in place but for the parents, local businesses and tradesmen, and in particular, one man, Martin Reilly from Athlone Chernobyl Aid.
He recalled Martin coming to him with a spark of an idea for the facility and with his "usual boundless enthusiasm" decided they were not waiting for anyone else to do it, but instead, would build it themselves.
He joked that he begged, borrowed and stole materials for the project, while convincing tradesmen from all over the region to give up their evenings and weekends to do the work.
"I didn't believe something of such high quality could be done in such a short time. It was all done in a month and half and on time and you can't always say that about builders," Mr O'Neill quipped.
He praised all who contributed to making the self-contained unit, comprising of a large classroom with individual work stations, sensory area, kitchen, therapy room and bathroom a reality for just €24,000, something which some said would cost a quarter of a million euro.
In less than a year, the value of the unit to the pupils is very evident, he added, pointing out that for children with autism sensory disruption was a huge thing. Giving an example, he said the whirring sound of a fridge could really upset a youngster with autism and disrupt their sensory pattern, even though everyone else couldn't really hear it.
To restore that balance can be difficult unless you have a tranquil haven for them to chill out, Mr O'Neill told the large crowd of parents and local people at the opening, highlighting that the calmness of the unit can do just that.
The sensory area, a tranquil room with calming lighting effects, water features and colourful mats and soft furniture illustrated that very point further.
The school dedicated the room, Seomra Susan, to the memory of Martin and Dora Reilly's late daughter who died in an accident some years ago.
A parent, Elzbieia Soban, who lives in Monksland told the Westmeath Independent that the unit has made a huge difference to her son Arman, who is nearly six, in less than a year.
Praising the staff and the work they do, she said he is more stable, calm and happy as a result and his speech is improving all the time.
Also addressing the attendance on the day was Fr Ray Milton, Chairperson of the Board of Management, who described the project as an absolutely fantastic example of the voluntary capacity of local people who came together to make it happen. Describing the unit as much needed, he hoped it would be a place of happiness for those who use it.
As the crowd toured the impressive facilities in the unit with staff from the school, Martin Reilly said the real heroes were the 40 or so tradesmen from Athlone Chernobyl Aid who gave so generously to the project and those who carried out fundraising for the unit.
Fittingly, a student from the unit, Oisín Lowry cut the ribbon to officially open the new facility, alongside his mother Valerie, who with her fellow employees in Covidien contributed €10,000 towards the cost of the project.