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A family education

The Interview
Typography
The O'Malley family
SETTLED IN The O’Malley family, from left: Ethan (7), Selma, Mia (2), Eamon, Kyle (4) and Caitlín (8), prior to their departure last year.

A family education

The interview
Padraig Burns


JUST over one year ago this newspaper highlighted the plight of the Westport family who were left with no option but to emigrate to California where the special educational needs of their five-year-old son could be adequately met.
Kyle O’Malley was born with a chromosomal abnormality, a condition that affected his global development, and, after an exhaustive and ultimately frustrating trawl through the available services in Ireland, his parents, Eamon and Selma, decided that they had no option but to move to California to provide their son with the type of services that he required.
Their research had led them to the Speech and Language Development Centre in Orange County. It’s a mainstream school that specialises in speech and language development and its broad-brush approach to education means that the other school-going children in the family – Ethan and Caitlin (Mia, the youngest of the family has not started school yet) - are able to be with Kyle every day.
Kyle’s father, Eamon, was adamant when he spoke a year ago that they didn’t want to move to California, but he felt the services that his son needed just weren’t available here. They had tried everywhere and Kyle was assessed on many occasions for various schools, but when it came down to the facts, the reality was that what Kyle needed wasn’t available. Correction: the services were available, but not as regularly as Kyle required. Kyle needs hands-on tuition every day.
A year ago Kyle couldn’t communicate with his parents and sisters and brother, but today he’s able to speak sentences and make himself understood by his family. They are short sentences, but as Eamon explained, it’s a huge stride for Kyle. It may have been traumatic moving the entire family from Westport to Orange County, California but hearing Kyle ask for his ‘cookies’ has meant it’s been worth the effort.
“Of course, we’d have loved to have stayed at home but what could we do? It wasn’t easy move here and we had to give a lot of thought to taking Caitlin and Ethan out of school in Murrisk. But our son needed this type of care and it wasn’t available at the level that he needed it in Ireland and we weren’t going to go through the rest of our lives regretting not providing Kyle with every opportunity that we could provide him with. Every day that Kyle goes through the school gates here in Orange County is a huge weight off our minds, because we know he’s getting the care that he needs.
“The developments have been brilliant and now he can make himself understood to us. We’re not expecting miracles here and we know that progress will be slow for Kyle but the improvements have been significant. He has OT [Occupational Therapy] and Physiotherapy every day within the school, as well as some extra-curricular activities like one-on-one swimming classes outside the school. But, basically, practically everything happens within the school gates and it’s fantastic really. At the moment he’s in the middle of a reading and writing programme and he’s doing well at it so the reality for us is that if we hadn’t moved, Kyle would not have made such progress,’’ he says.
The O’Malleys are currently in the middle of applying for an extension to the entry visa that they got last year. And they are enjoying their new life.
“The children have settled really well and Selma and I have got to know some great people here. Actually, when we arrived we stayed for two weeks in an apartment owned by a Sligo family who also have a child with a similar condition in the same school as us. We found since we came here that when people know and understand your circumstances they really go out of their way to help you. We’re living in a town called Buena Park and our house is only a few minutes drive from the school. The children have made some great friends and there’s always plenty of them playing outside the house. So, in that sense, it’s just like being at home. I suppose the weather helps too. The coldest it gets is around 16 degrees at night time so that’s not too bad and while it’s warm, a two-hour drive will bring us to snow-capped mountains for skiing,’’ said Eamon.
However, as good as it is and as good as the services are for Kyle, it’s not home and the plan is for the O’Malleys to return home to Ireland, hopefully to Westport, but if that’s not possible, to wherever Kyle can get what he needs. But they can’t, and they won’t, do so until they can be assured that a school exists where Kyle will receive the same services that he’s receiving on a daily basis in Orange County.
“I don’t think it’s an awful lot to ask of any government to provide the services that children like Kyle need in the schools. It can’t be down to money because the country seems to be awash with money, but there has to be a will there to do this type of work and make sure that children like Kyle are taken care of. Actually, I might be wrong, but as far as I’m aware it’s their constitutional right, but we have looked everywhere in Ireland and we couldn’t get anywhere. Maybe, it’s changed since we left but from what we hear it hasn’t. All we want for Kyle is the same that any parents want: the same educational opportunities for him as every other child. It’s not a lot to ask for.’’
Despite the frustrations that are obvious in his voice, Eamon is not a bitter man and indeed he’s anxious to acknowledge the efforts of so many people over the past 18 months or so. “When we went public last year the reaction to Kyle’s story was incredible. A Trust Fund was established and the support we received was incredible. It wasn’t just from Westport and all over Mayo but throughout Ireland and in London where we lived for years. Selma’s family is from Tyrone and they organised events there for the Fund and even now there are people still contributing to it. So, we need to say a big, big thank you to everyone, not just those who gave money but to all who gave us any kind of encouragement and support. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without those people. As I said earlier, Kyle is doing well and improving every day and that would never have happened if people were not as good as they were. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about all the people who helped us and we really want them all to know how appreciative we are,’’ he said.