Belfast Telegraph

Autistic worker traumatised by shock closure of Derry garden project

By Donna Deeney

The sudden closure of a horticulture project for people with learning disabilities has badly traumatised one of the people who worked there, his father has said.

Cathal O'Kane (30), who has autism, worked at Ashbrook, a horticultural centre on the outskirts of Londonderry for 20 years.

His father Kevin said that since the centre shut earlier this year, his son has been so badly traumatised by the change in his routine he is now also suffering from high blood pressure.

The centre was initially opened 30 years ago as a cross-community project bringing young people from across the interface of the Tullyally and Currynierin estates together - but it later developed as a centre for people with learning disabilities.

Between 12 and 15 young people worked at Ashbrook under the guidance of manager George Hawthorn until New Horizons Partnership, the umbrella organisation responsible for Ashbrook, closed the facility.

Mr O'Kane said his whole family have been devastated by the effect the closure has had on Cathal.

"We were told by New Horizons that Ashbrook was closing while George was off on holiday and that Cathal would be working at their centre in Strabane, but then we were told Ashbrook wasn't going to open again," he said.

"I cannot explain how badly this has affected my son. He went from a young man who woke up eager to get to his work in the morning and see the rest of his pals at the centre and George as well to someone who is upset at everything.

"My son has autism which means he needs a routine and any disruption to that routine is very traumatic. This has had such a detrimental affect on Cathal that his blood pressure has risen seriously high.

"I cannot understand why Ashbrook was closed, the lads who worked there got so much out of it, learned so much. In fact, the work they were doing out there was so good they had the contract from the council for all the floral arrangements around the city that won Derry all the Ulster in Bloom awards."

The decision to close Ashbrook has caused dismay among its founder members, who include SDLP councillor Jim McKeever and Mr Hawthorn.

They along with Mr O'Kane and other parents are now looking at the possibility of re-opening the facility independent of New Horizons.

Mr McKeever said: "I am not directly involved with Ashbrook any longer, but I have maintained a keen interest in the excellent work George and the lads have done out there.

"Over the years the centre has done incredible work with prisoners from Magilligan and various school groups, who all benefited so much from working alongside Cathal and his friends.

"I cannot see any logical reason why the centre was closed at such short notice but I intend to raise the matter with the council and see what measures can be taken to save this very valuable project."

New Horizons declined to make a comment.

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