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09 Dec 2021

'Never give up' Laois girl with Down Syndrome starts full-time job

'Never give up' Laois girl with Down Syndrome starts full-time job

Katie Flanagan from Laois who is starting a new job.

A young Laois woman with Down Syndrome is continuing to break down barriers to achieve her life goals.

Katie Flanagan from Stradbally was the first Leaving Cert Applied graduate with Down Syndrome in Laois, at Scoil Chríost Rí in Portlaoise where was selected as the Debs Queen in 2017 (pictured below). 

At that time she told the Leinster Express that she hoped to attend the National Learning Network and then work in childcare.

Now 23, Katie has just been offered a full-time paid job, an offer that was won after she first impressed her new employers in a volunteer role.

Katie is a new Sherpa Leader at the Sherpa Kids afterschool club in Portlaoise, beating other interviewees for the job.

She told the Leinster Express what it means to become a full time employee. 

"I'm so happy, I'm delighted. I'm just like everyone else, I'm no different. This job is easy for me. I knew some of the kids already from volunteering in The Den playschool. Some of the kids here have Down syndrome as well and I help them. I love it, I help the children with their homework, I'm doing the same job as the rest of the staff," Katie said.

She is looking forward to her first week's wages.

"I've bought two dresses already and I'm going to get my nails done. 

Her proud parents are Geraldine and Fergus.  Geraldine said that lack of employment opportunities for people with Down Syndrome is a big issue.

"I keep saying, people just need to give them a chance, and let them prove themselves to the employer. A lot of employers are afraid to take the leap. It is huge for us as parents to see Katie get a job. She is so independent, even at home cooking her own meals," said Geraldine.

"I'm always organised, always on time," added Katie.

She is also working on a Level 3 and 4 courses in childcare with Laois Offaly Employment and Training Board in Portlaoise. 

"I want to tell everyone to get a job. Keep your head down and get on with it," Katie said.

Her mother is thrilled for Katie, who begun her life fighting for survival, and completed her Junior Cert as a wheelchair user. 

"She always just got on with things," she said.

On Friday of last week, when Katie was due to finish her volunteering role, she was given a surprise party with pop-up cards banners music, and was offered the job.

"Katie is over the moon working 5 days a week in meaningful paid employment, treated as an equal member of staff, and doing a job that she loves. We are so happy for her, but most of all, we are happy with Sherpa kids for giving this girl a real chance in life and everything else that comes with it. Anything is possible, never give up," Geraldine said.

Katie was assisted in finding a job by Midland Ability Employment in Mountmellick who are available to support anyone with a disability to find employment.

"I don't think enough people know about them. They spent hours interviewing Katie to find out what she would be good at. Everyone is good at something. And they don't just leave people dumped in jobs. Their support continues for 18 months to keep an eye on them in case they are not being treated well," Geraldine said.

Cassia O'Neill is manager with Sherpa, who run a pop-up afterschool service and in Holy Family schools and Educate Together in Portlaoise as well as camps during holidays.

"I was contacted by Karen and I thought it would be nice to give someone a chance. Since the first day Katie was so enthusiastic about the job and grateful for the opportunity. She motivates us as well, all the staff. We have all been through so much with lockdowns and stopping and starting but her energy and passion actually boosts all our morale. She is well able for the job. She is studying childcare and comes in every day with fresh ideas for us.

"I would say to other employers, go for it, it's worth a try. Katie brings a lot to the job. We have all realised now how important it is for someone to have a job," Cassia said.

Down Syndrome Ireland 'Laois branch' is celebrating for Katie.

"We congratulate Katie on her wonderful achievement. Katie has proven that, given the opportunity, our members can be just as resourceful and talented as anyone else in society.

"We would like to acknowledge the opportunity given by Sherpa to Katie as an employer. This is what the Laois Field of Dreams project is all about, giving our members the skill-sets to hold down meaningful paid employment in the community.

"We would encourage other potential employers to contact us if they have any openings that might suit some of our adults, please ring Mick on 086 0491633 if you are considering becoming involved with our Branch in this way," the group say.

DSI 'Laois branch' has been provided with a site to build a 'field of dreams' training centre of excellence in Abbeyleix by Laois County Council and are fundraising to build it. Text dreams to 50300 to donate €4.

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