When an overgrown purdie patch behind the Donegal Down Syndrome (DDS) office was turned into a beautiful sensory garden last summer the transformation was nothing less than miraculous. Where once a long, open yard had stretched behind the Letterkenny house, now sturdy timber fencing has been installed, creating a safe, child-friendly space. Where rough sawgrass once ran riot, now a sensory walkway made of differently textured surfaces – astroturf, wood, rubber tiles, and pavement – curves elegantly around a lush green lawn and turquoise slide. And stubborn weeds have now been replaced by wooden boxes filled with sense-stimulating flowers and plants such as fluffy lamb’s tail for touch and delicious strawberries for taste.
The miracle doesn’t end there, though, as all of the labour on the project was provided free of charge by a new “Community Hands” service that Donegal Local Development CLG (DLDC) is offering to community organisations. “There’s not a hope we could have done it otherwise,” said Sheila McMenamin of DDS, which paid only for the supplies needed to complete the project. “Without a shadow of a doubt it wouldn’t have come off without them.” Since first being rolled out last December, DLDC’s Community Hands programme has offered a wide range of services to community organisations in Letterkenny and the surrounding area, including power washing, painting, strimming, plastering, small-scale building jobs, and more. “Any organisation which has a charitable, not-for-profit status is eligible to apply on the DLDC website,” said Stephen Shevlin, RSS/Tús Programme Manager at DLDC, who manages the Community Hands programme. “The application is then assessed and prioritised by a working group within DLDC and, if successful, a date for the proposed works will be agreed with the group.” The Community Hands team includes four Donegal farmers with construction work backgrounds who are currently participating in the Rural Social Scheme for farmers, fishermen, and their families which is administered by DLDC. Between them, Declan Black, Justin Callan, Martin McBride, and James Russell bring a wide range of skills and a can-do attitude to every project they take on. “We enjoy providing assistance to groups that otherwise wouldn’t have the finances to complete any of the works,” James said. “I think we’re doing a good service and the appreciation is unreal…the cups of tea and biscuits just keep on coming!”
Work done by the team on the Donegal Down Syndrome sensory garden included strimming the overgrown field; pulling all of the top soil away with a mini-digger; building fencing, flower boxes, and a handrail for a wheelchair ramp; creating the multi-textured sensory walkway; and laying grass and wood chips. “The main thing was to make the area safe and usable,” Sheila said. “From April to June the team were there week in and week out religiously. In fairness, they would have turned their hand to anything. It genuinely was a case of everyone bouncing ideas off each other, and it’s lovely to see the beautiful, safe area that has resulted. They were brilliant.” Other community groups that have availed of Community Hands services include Ards Walled Garden, the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, Carnone Presbyterian Church, Donegal Women’s Domestic Violence Service, Cairde Le Cheile, Dunfanaghy Family Resource Centre, Carrigart Presbyterian Church, and Rossnakill Resource Centre. “They were fantastic,” said Ciaran Maguire of the St. Colmcille Hostel in Letterkenny, where the team has assisted with painting and general maintenance work. “They’ve done the work and made a brilliant job of it. They’re very professional. We’re running on a shoestring budget, so it’s great that way, too. It’s a great service in the community.” Community Hands also helped out with works at the new Cara House premises on Lower Main Street in Letterkenny, including exterior painting, power washing, and carpet laying.
“We moved premises from Market Square on Friday and they were here first thing Monday morning,” said Martina McGinley, Cara House administrator. “Since it was wet that day they couldn’t start painting, so they used their initiative and done the power washing and generally tidied up outside for us. They started painting the next day, and even came at 5.30 one morning so the scaffolding wouldn’t disrupt traffic on the road when it got busy later in the day. To do that was a massive task. They have so many skills, and the quality of the work is brilliant. We just couldn’t thank them enough.”
If you are interested in Community Hands support contact stephen Shevlin on 074 9127056.