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Destined - Derry

The Foyle Road on the City side of Derry is the location of the Foyle Valley Railway Museum, closed to the public since around 2014. In the main exhibition area, the handsome old steam trains and trams still reside on the old Donegal line, beside their recreated station platform. A few years back there were plans in place to demolish the museum and mothball the exhibits; but, somewhat surreally, it is now home to DTNI member Destined, a charity that provides services to around 200 people with learning disabilities, from birth to old-age.

 

CEO Dermot O’Hara became involved with this work initially by volunteering with a local autism support group and it quickly became clear that most existing services were targeted at those with a severe learning disability. There appeared to be a space for a provider of socially-oriented activities for people whose disability was on the milder end of the spectrum - isolation was one of the recurrent themes coming from the people he spoke to at the time - and, consequently, Destined was established to occupy that space.

As with many success stories, there was a slow start – just four people attended the first Sunday night youth club. Gradually however, the number of nights increased, and new premises were found to cope with the demand. It now operates seven days a week, every week of the year, employing eleven core staff and twenty-four volunteers. The services Destined provides empower its members to live independently, improve their employability and create and maintain fulfilling relationships. There is a strong emphasis on life skills: literacy and numeracy, travel independence, money management, hygiene and cooking.

Parents’ evenings are held regularly, events at which knowledge and experience can be passed onto new parents from those that have trodden that path before them. Dermot speaks of a common fear parents have, of letting go when their child reaches the age of eighteen but there is much that can be learned from an experienced peer group. There are groups and clubs devoted to gardening, cooking and pigeon racing, and there are sports services including a judo club, a Derry City supporters club and a fishing club.

Destined initially applied to the Space & Place programme (a capital grants project managed by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland) and were successful as a flagship project receiving £1m for the development of a North West Learning Disability Centre. Derry City and Strabane District Council gave the group a 50-year lease which came packaged with a tranche of land onsite and the requisite planning permission for extension, at a nominal rate, to support the development.

Destined first explored the option of a Community Asset Transfer (CAT) four years ago, before the NI Executive had formulated the policy via the Department for Social Development. Council adopted the policy last year and following an expression of interest by Destined, DSCD Council has agreed in principle to draft a Community Asset Transfer for full ratification by Council. This would then give Destined an asset that they could use to borrow against in the event of a shortfall in construction or capital works funding.

At this point the Ulster Community Investment Trust (UCIT) stepped in, agreeing in principle to provide a bridging loan if necessary against the asset.

This asset transfer will be the first to be processed by DSCD Council under the new policy, however it is hoped that the documentation presented by Destined as part of their bid for lease status will facilitate a smooth and hopefully quick process. And the signs are good: council staff have been supportive of the application and, largely, wanted the transfer to proceed.

 Destined is seeking to operate at 70% sustainability and the future looks bright. Funding is in place for the restoration of the Meenglas steam engine, and the re-opening of the museum should take place later this year. Plans for the existing building and the area surrounding the river include a river bus, a walkway, a café/restaurant and conference centre, a crèche and an urban farm providing social farming and horticulture training. A green belt along the Foyle Road has been earmarked for a sensory garden.

All these projects will be staffed by Destined members - a vitally important part of what they do as an organisation. Only 5-6% of people with learning disabilities are in employment and it is this statistic that the WAM work placement project has been created to change. Destined has recently completed a six-month pilot employment programme that aims to see 1% of local government staff made up of people with a learning disability. Of the 900 staff currently employed by Derry & Strabane District Council this would represent just nine people in real terms – a very achievable goal. It is hoped that after this stage, the policy will be rolled out to other councils and public bodies.

There has always been a great sense of community in the city of Derry, and the partnerships that take place between Destined and other organisations in the area is reflective of this. One example of this is a collaboration between Destined, the PSNI and the two hostels located on the Foyle Road to tackle the problem of street drinking and anti-social behaviour in the area. Like many other people across the north, Dermot O’Hara identified a need in his community and he and his team had the determination to follow through with his original vision. Asset-based development plays a large part in ensuring that the positive social impact that his projects are having doesn’t end at Foyle Road.


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