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Croagh Patrick Challenge raises funds for autism school

Teresa and Mary McDonagh from Castlebar who climbed seven days in a row, doing the seventh day barefoot.
Teresa and Mary McDonagh from Castlebar who climbed seven days in a row, doing the seventh day barefoot. Pic: Alison Laredo

Charity spirit burns bright

The Croagh Patrick Challenge continues to support a school for autistic children

Edwin McGreal

It was six years ago when Pat and Siobhán Kearns’ son Jordan was diagnosed with Autism. When Pat heard about the lack of facilities in the county for children with Autism, he knew he wanted to do something, he just wasn’t sure what.
His friend Johnny Oosten came up with the idea of getting people to volunteer to climb Croagh Patrick seven days in a row to raise funds and to raise awareness. On one hand it has been an extraordinary success but on another it has been a struggle.
The hundreds of thousands raised has allowed for the opening in 2009 of a special ABA (applied behaviour analysis) school in Kiltimagh. The Áthas school is run by Mayo Autism Action and doesn’t receive any funding from the Department of Education so the Croagh Patrick Challenge, now six years running, is the primary source of funds for the school. The school assists children with profound autism whose needs are not served by mainstream education.
That the school could be opened and operational largely thanks to an annual fundraiser organised by Pat Kearns shows how successful the Croagh Patrick Challenge has been but the battle is an ongoing one and Pat Kearns admits he’s very concerned that the school could close as it is struggling to exist on fundraising alone, particularly in such recessionary times.
“At the moment, Mayo Autism Action are doing their best to keep the service going but the school is very much in jeopardy right now. It’s pretty disastrous and it is heart-wrenching for so many people who have put in so much work over the years,” Pat told The Mayo News.
The school currently caters for six children on a full-time basis and a number more on a part-time basis. There had been hopes to develop and nurture the school into a centre of excellence but it has now just become a matter of survival.
“Our hope was always to open a centre of excellence there, that we’d be able to offer a few more services like speech and language, occupational therapy, support for the families - that’s important as well because Mams and Dads can’t be forgotten about as well - but that hasn’t been possible I’m afraid,” said Pat Kearns.
But the fight goes on and anyone in the vicinity of Croagh Patrick last week will have seen just how resolute a battle is being fought. A total of 155 climbers undertook the mission to climb Croagh Patrick each day for seven days while, when those who did climbs but not seven days, are included, a total of 1,800 climbs were made in total. One man and his ten-year-old daughter came from Donegal to do the climb and tales of sacrifice for the charitable cause are commonplace.
The Mayo News visited the base-camp on Thursday morning. Pat and Siobhán Kearns and Eunice Moran were dealing with registrations in the office while another group of volunteers were dishing out some very welcome tea, coffee, soups and sandwiches to climbers as they landed back down.
By the time myself and The Connaught Telegraph’s Tom Kelly set on our way up the mountain shortly after 8am plenty of people were already on their way home. Killawalla’s Johnny McGing was bounding down with a spring in his step, Cllr Blackie Gavin was running down the mountain like a giddy child, full of life.
One Castlebar woman, Nora King, unable to climb on Sunday, was getting in two climbs on Thursday to make sure she did the seven. We met her at the top on the way down from her second climb. She’d two days work done by the time most people in Mayo were getting out of bed.
As Pat Kearns testifies, there was no shortage of effort from those who volunteered.
“Last year a lot of people came here and climbed one day or two days and there was the feeling that they’d really like to give the seven days a go and they’re back here giving the seven days their best. People have been fantastic,” he admitted.
And so have Pat Kearns and his team. The future of the Áthas School is very much uncertain but any closure won’t be for the want of effort of all behind the Croagh Patrick Challenge.

HAVE YOUR SAY email edwinmcgreal@mayonews.ie with your comments