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Mencap needs your help to build a special centre for its shining stars

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Happy girl: Two-year-old Isla Marley who has developmental delay

Happy girl: Two-year-old Isla Marley who has developmental delay

Support network: Isla Marley with her mother Helen, father David and sister Anna

Support network: Isla Marley with her mother Helen, father David and sister Anna

Family time: Niamh (second left) with her mum Oonagh, dad Iggy and sister Aoife

Family time: Niamh (second left) with her mum Oonagh, dad Iggy and sister Aoife

KEVIN SCOTT / BELFAST TELEGRAPH

Money man: former Segal pupil Gary Clements now works for Mencap

Money man: former Segal pupil Gary Clements now works for Mencap

New vision: Artist's impression of the planned centre in south Belfast

New vision: Artist's impression of the planned centre in south Belfast

Happy girl: Two-year-old Isla Marley who has developmental delay

It's a unique nursery where miracles occur, where children with special and sometimes complex needs are nurtured and encouraged to develop often beyond what their parents could ever have hoped for.

Now Mencap - the charity behind Segal House Nursery - has launched a public appeal to help add to this crucial pre-school service by creating a new Children and Families Centre in Belfast.

The Big Step Forward Appeal is calling on the public to help raise £1.7m towards this new facility, which will also see Segal House relocate to larger, more modern premises.

The new centre is to be built on the site of the old Newtownbreda Primary School in South Belfast and will provide children and young people with learning disabilities with the right support and opportunities to flourish and achieve their potential.

Segal House Nursery is run by Mencap in partnership with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and is the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland.

It opened in 1969 and since then has been transforming lives for young children and their families through specialist care and in-house therapies.

Currently, more than 50 children aged between two and four with a learning disability, autism, or serious unexplained developmental delay attend the nursery.

The children are able to learn and play in a therapeutic environment, helping to develop skills and achieve goals that would be unattainable without specialist expertise and support.

That expertise and support comes from Mencap's key workers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists with sessional support from other health professionals. These include community paediatricians and nurses, as well as educational psychology services, peripatetic teaching support and curriculum advice.

Three people who know firsthand just how big an impact the service has today share the reasons why the public need to get behind the charity and back its fundraising campaign.

'Plans for this new centre are brilliant'

Belfast parents David and Helen Marley have been delighted to see the progress in their two-year-old daughter, Isla, since she started Segal House Nursery in January. Isla has developmental delay, although assessment to find out why is still ongoing. David (35) is a quantity surveyor and Helen (34) is a community and outreach officer for Belfast City Council. They also have a baby daughter, Anna (11 months). David says:

We are very lucky that last January Isla's speech therapist suggested we get her name on the waiting list for Segal House and thankfully there was a free place and she got it.

Isla has undiagnosed developmental delay. We don't have a label or name for it and she is still going through assessment.

It was when she was six months old that we realised she wasn't hitting her milestones. At one year old, she was very far behind and it was then that she was referred to the community paediatric service.

She then went through tests with geneticists, neurologists - nearly every consultant in the Royal has been trying to figure out the cause of her delay, but we are no further forward and are still searching for answers.

At Segal House, you can tell they love her as much as we do. There is real comfort in that for me, as a parent, leaving my child with people for a good part of the day.

Isla wasn't walking at all and she was struggling to crawl when she started at nursery. Now with their help she can take a few paces and the mechanics of walking is beginning to come to her.

She is not talking, but in fairness Isla is a happy child. She is able to play and enjoy her wee life and thank God she is healthy and while she does have challenges there are a lot of children worse off.

She gets her speech, physio and occupational therapy at the nursery, which is just brilliant. Before, myself and Helen would have had to take time out of work to get her to these appointments, so it has taken a lot of pressure off us.

Segal House is like an extended family of people who are very invested in the children. For us, we are looking forwarding to making sure Isla gets to her full potential with their help.

I suppose, not having been in the system, you have no concept of what is out there and it is very much a learning curve. You don't get a huge level of support in the community. It is only through meeting other parents that you find out about things.

Mencap's plan to have a centre for children and young people is brilliant. The thing about the charity is that, in the wider world, there is a stigma attached to it, but people don't realise that Mencap does so many different things and caters for so many different ranges of abilities in kids.

It's all-encompassing and I can't speak highly enough of it. As for the fundraising aspect, it's important that people try and help as much as they can."

'The team at Segal made such a difference'

Oonagh McGowan (47), from Belfast, saw a transformation in her daughter, Niamh, during her two years at Segal House.

Niamh, now seven, has a complex, life-limiting neuro disability. Oonagh lost her son, Conor, just before his fourth birthday in 2004 from the same condition. She is married to Iggy (47), who is managing director of a medical diagnostics company, and they have another daughter, Aoife, aged 10. She says:

There is no diagnosis for Niamh's condition. She is deaf and visually impaired and can't interpret the world around her.

She has a severe learning disability and is not mobile. She can't talk and is fed by tube. She also has epilepsy.

Our son, Conor, who passed away in 2004, had the same condition, although more serious than Niamh.

When Niamh was born and failed her neonatal hearing screening, because of Conor, alarm bells rang immediately for me.

Conor spent the first six months of his life in the Royal Victoria Hospital and was very ill. Niamh is slightly different from Conor, in that she hasn't been as ill, but she has spent a lot of her life in and out of hospital.

It is a degenerative condition and Niamh is life-limited and that hangs over us, as we know she is going to pass away at some stage.

She is a beautiful child and a wee monkey. Her time at Segal House was precious.

I do my best for her, but I'm not a professional and the difference the team at Segal House made to Niamh was incredible.

To have ready access to their therapies under one roof is such a bonus and takes away the pressure of having to constantly run here and there to appointments.

For us, as parents, it was a very positive experience, as there was an immediate connection. One of the many things I remember about Niamh's time there was that, despite being so severely disabled and sensorally impaired by her blindness and deafness, the staff never defined her by her disabilities, or limitations. Through touch, taste and smell, the team found ways to help her to blossom. They brought her wee personality out.

Before Segal House, Niamh didn't really acknowledge me or Iggy as her mummy and daddy, but over time, with the love and care of her key workers, they drew her out and her response changed as Niamh's personality shone through. That was just priceless.

She is a very tactile child and they used a lot of sensory toys and massage and smells.

She does have a little bit of hearing and they introduced her to music and now she is a bit of a diva who loves Celine Dion.

She really came out of herself when she was at the nursery. She began to vocalise, which was a very big thing for us. She doesn't make words, but she makes noises and can sing along to music in her own way. She began to smile and it's difficult to explain, but because of her condition, we didn't have major expectations. That smile meant everything.

Segal House has helped make life a pleasure for her and showed her there is a big wide world out there - that and chocolate. Through their sensory treatments, she can munch on half a chocolate button and she is now a bit of a chocoholic.

She loves to be held and she is very much a home bird. She now goes to Oakwood School and they are so good, as well.

You are handing your child, who is your most precious thing, over to people who are strangers and it means everything that these people are so wonderful.

The fundraising campaign is crucial. I just hope people get behind it."

'I've so many happy memories from here'

Gary Clements (24), from Belfast, has a learning disability and was also a pupil at Segal House Nursery. Gary now works for Mencap. He says:

Since the beginning of 2012, I have worked for Mencap. I have known about Mencap ever since I was little. I went to Segal House Nursery from the age of two to four and after that I went to four different schools until I was 19.

After leaving Glenveagh School in Belfast, I worked in my local Co-op stacking shelves. Mencap helped me to get that job and I liked helping people any way I could.

I was at the Co-op for two years before starting working at Mencap. On Thursdays, I work with Justine and Una in fundraising at Segal House.

I sort out all the collection buckets and count the money that people give us. You have to be very precise in my job and sometimes it takes a long time to count everything as they are big totals.

I like to count everything out, putting the notes and coins in piles, and writing the numbers on a piece of paper.

Occasionally, I will use a calculator. Justine worked out that since I started I must have counted over £20,000.

I like working in fundraising on a Thursday and in the nursery on a Friday. I help Ruth in the kitchen with the food delivery, but the best thing is helping the kids as much as I can.

I do singing with them and read stories to them and help when we have visitors.

Being at the nursery brings back happy memories for me. When I was there, my Granny Ball painted two big wall paintings for the children full of cartoon characters like Peter Pan and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That was in 1995 and it is still there today.

I need to get two buses to and from work each day and I do a lot of walking, too. I volunteer in my old school, Glenveagh, on Mondays and Tuesdays as well and help the kids with whatever they are doing. I like going back to Glenveagh and Segal House - it makes me feel like a wise old man, even though I am 24.

When I am not working, or volunteering, I like to play on my computer and help around the house. I live at home with my mum and dad, my older brother David and my younger sister Amy.

At weekends, I used to go out with my mum, but now I do my own thing and go out with David, who is my best mate. We do a lot together, including winding each other up.

We go shopping and go to the pictures together. I have seen all of the Star Wars movies. I like science fiction and superhero films.

I am looking forward to helping as many people with a learning disability as I can."

How you can help Mencap take a big step forward for the future...

The total cost of the new Mencap centre will be £4.6m, but thanks to Government funding and donations the charity was left with £1.7m to raise.

Capital funding of £2.5m has come from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the rest from donations

Since the appeal was launched in October, another £500,000 has been pledged

Brian Ambrose, chief executive of George Best Belfast City Airport, is chairing the Big Step Forward Appeal

He says: "On behalf of Mencap, I would like to thank some of our early donors who showed their confidence in our vision for a better future for people with a learning disability, like Ulster Garden Villages, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Fraser family, Ulster Rugby and Winemark. But now we urgently need the help and support of the great Northern Ireland public to raise the rest.

"We will be rolling out some exciting and engaging fundraising initiatives in the months ahead to help encourage people to get involved.''

There are 33,000 people with a learning disability in Northern Ireland

Established locally in 1965, Mencap Northern Ireland works to support people with a learning disability and their families and carers by fighting to change laws and improve services and access to education, employment and leisure facilities

Mencap supports thousands of people with a learning disability to live their lives the way they want. To support Mencap's Big Step Forward Appeal to build, equip and run their new Children and Families' Centre, go to www.mencapbigstepforward.org, or text MENCAP to 70660 to donate £3

Belfast Telegraph