It started with a phone call to the Garda Station, then located as it had been for decades in Duke Street, Athy. The caller was Mary O’Donovan, a housewife from Newbridge and her call was put through to the Garda Sergeant, Maurice Shortt. Fifty years later Maurice remembers the conversation he had with Mary O’Donovan and the request which led to the setting up of the K.A.R.E. branch in Athy.
Mary and her husband Dan were parents of a handicapped child who found that there were no facilities in the area to cater for their daughter. Making contact with other parents in a similar situation and with the help of the County Medical Officer, Dr. Brendan O’Donnell, they formed the County Kildare Association of Parents and Friends of Handicapped Children.
The phone call to the Garda Station in 1967 arose from a desire to get a local parent’s consent to reproduce in a local newspaper a photograph of handicapped children to publicise the association’s work. The request towards the end of the phone call was to ask Sergeant Shortt would he be interested in setting up a branch of the association in Athy. The answer from the ever helpful Maurice was ‘yes’ and so began that great voluntary movement which over the years helped to transform the lives of so many.
The first meeting of the future K.A.R.E. branch was organised by Maurice Shortt in the Leinster Arms Hotel. He called upon many of his neighbours in Chanterlands and they responded, as did the people of Athy. Pat Hannigan, Mary Walsh, John Maher, Kitty O’Higgins, Shirley Yates, Rene Kelly and Sean Cunnane are just a few of the names recalled as early members of K.A.R.E. who under the chairmanship of Maurice Shortt helped to develop much needed services for children with intellectual disabilities.
Children were brought to classes organised in Newbridge and later in Carlow by volunteers who provided transport free of charge. An early remedial class set up by the Sisters of Mercy in Scoil Mhichil Naofa under the supervision of Sr. Carmel Fallon was in danger of closing due to the transfer of a nun to the foreign missions. A request to Athy’s K.A.R.E. ensured the continuation of that class with K.A.R.E. volunteers providing tutors and reading assistance for the children. One of those volunteers was Rene Kelly, a near neighbour of Maurice Shortt, and it was Rene’s work with the children and her proven success which prompted the Department of Education to sanction a remedial class in the local school. The class provided day schooling for children with learning difficulties from 5 to 13 years of age. This led to the setting up of a similar remedial class in the Christian Brother’s School where another K.A.R.E. volunteer, Gerry Gilroy, was in charge. The provision of school based facilities developed from the K.A.R.E. model allowed the association to change its services to better help people with an intellectual disability to play a part in their community. At the same time supported employment was developed to help people get jobs in local companies.
As part of those changes a decision was taken to establish a hostel in the former Cunningham house at Shrewleen. The original building was in time replaced by a newly built complex which was opened in 1992 as an Enterprise Centre. The facility which now operates as a social drop in centre or a day care centre has a staff of nine, catering for approximately 20 persons who are intellectually challenged.
Athy Lions Club, another local voluntary group, funded the purchase of the prefab building in which the remedial class in Scoil Mhichil Naofa was held. In March 1979 Athy Lions Club again came to the assistance of K.A.R.E. when it purchased and presented a minibus to the county organisation based in Newbridge.
Athy’s K.A.R.E. committee has been disbanded but the facilities in Athy will continue as they have in the past as part of the countywide organisation of K.A.R.E. On Wednesday evening last volunteers and friends of K.A.R.E. came together in the Clanard Court Hotel to celebrate a voluntary commitment stretching back 50 years. A presentation was made to Maurice Shortt, the man who took the phone call in 1967 and whose generous response to Mary O’Donovan’s request resulted in the setting up of Athy’s K.A.R.E. branch. After 50 years of volunteering and commitment by so many men and women from the town of Athy and the surrounding district, Athy’s K.A.R.E. branch is no more. Our community’s thanks goes to the many volunteers who played their part in the work of K.A.R.E. and a special thanks from me to Ita Smyth and Rene Kelly for giving me an insight into the realm of community volunteering.