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Belfast social enterprise helps graduates with learning difficulties ‘find a place in this world'

NOW Group equips people with learning difficulties with the skills needed to thrive in the workplace

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NOW Group graduates Francis Fitzsimons, Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray pictured with CEO of NOW Group, Maeve Monaghan.

NOW Group graduates Francis Fitzsimons, Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray pictured with CEO of NOW Group, Maeve Monaghan.

Danielle with her husband Paul on their wedding day.

Danielle with her husband Paul on their wedding day.

Matthew Gray.

Matthew Gray.

Maeve Monaghan, CEO of the NOW Group, and Matthew Gray.

Maeve Monaghan, CEO of the NOW Group, and Matthew Gray.

From left: Director of Operations at NOW Group, Pauline Fitzsimons; CEO of the NOW Group, Maeve Monaghan; MC of the NOW Group graduation ceremony and radio presenter, Cate Conway; Director of Business and Organisational Development at NOW Group, Diane Hill; and (front) NOW Group graduates Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray.

From left: Director of Operations at NOW Group, Pauline Fitzsimons; CEO of the NOW Group, Maeve Monaghan; MC of the NOW Group graduation ceremony and radio presenter, Cate Conway; Director of Business and Organisational Development at NOW Group, Diane Hill; and (front) NOW Group graduates Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray.

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NOW Group graduates Francis Fitzsimons, Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray pictured with CEO of NOW Group, Maeve Monaghan.

March 29 will forever be imprinted into the minds of 200 young adults after graduating from social enterprise NOW Group at Belfast City Hall.

Graduating from a range of 12 academies, including warehousing, digital, retail, tourism, cleaning, business admin and employability, they waited eagerly on their big day for almost two years following the postponement in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Danielle Scott, from Belfast, completed the skills academy courses in catering and hospitality, progress to employment and essential skills. Danielle now has a position with Loaf Cafe on the Grosvenor Road.

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Danielle with her husband Paul on their wedding day.

Danielle with her husband Paul on their wedding day.

Danielle with her husband Paul on their wedding day.

She said: “I enjoyed learning new things in a friendly, safe, supportive and inclusive environment.

“I’ve also had fun as well as learning a lot because there’s an amount of time focused on ice breakers and getting to know each other.

“The teachers are friendly, understanding and always there to help.

“The courses are easy to follow and the teachers are very creative and brilliant at finding ways to keep things interesting.”

Matthew Gray also graduated in progress to employment, essential skills, retail business and money management.

“I liked meeting new people and working as part of a team,” he said.

“I like the structure of it. People don’t need to worry about things, everyone is very helpful.”

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Matthew Gray.

Matthew Gray.

Matthew Gray.

The NOW Group, established in 2000, works to help people with learning difficulties, disabilities and autism gain qualifications and essential life and work skills and supports them to move into jobs with a future.

“The course has helped my self-esteem. It has shown me I can achieve things within the right environment and with the right support,” explained Danielle, who also secured a NVQ level one catering qualification.

“I’ve had the chance to experience working in a team. It has helped me come out of my shell a little bit.

“I’ve always been hoping to find a place in this world and now I’ve found it.”

Matthew also found the course beneficial to his personal wellbeing, saying: “It made me feel more confident and more independent”. He said he’d love to one day work in a small, busy shop.

Danielle added: “My dream job would be positively impacting on the lives of others, being there to support them in their good and bad days and being heard.

“I want people to believe in their own abilities, to ultimately help them to know they’re not alone.

“In the beginning of my journey, my amazing employment officer guided me in the direction of volunteering with NOW group and Loaf Cafe.

“She helped me to see where I wanted to be and then to take the step to move towards it.

“She has been there with me every step of the way. I never have felt alone.

“I have always felt I would be a counsellor because I like to listen and be there for others in any way that I can.

“When I was preparing for my wedding, the lovely woman who helped me with getting my dress suggested I work with people with neurodiversity.

“I have a strong desire to help people and protect others like myself by helping and supporting them to believe in their own abilities, ultimately helping them to reach their goals.

“I strongly believe that neurodiverse people should never be spectators of their own life decisions.

“Autonomy is essential to happiness for everyone. We deserve all the same opportunities as everyone else.”

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Maeve Monaghan, CEO of the NOW Group, and Matthew Gray.

Maeve Monaghan, CEO of the NOW Group, and Matthew Gray.

Maeve Monaghan, CEO of the NOW Group, and Matthew Gray.

The NOW Group’s focus on social inclusion helps those they work with improve their health, as well as receiving a better education and a brighter future.

In the past year, it has supported more than 1,540 participants through its initiatives. And along with the 12 academies, it also offers soft skills programmes and has run over 1,000 courses.

Danielle has another reason to feel happy. During her graduation she was awarded the Outstanding Learner of the Year award.

“It felt surreal to be speaking in front of so many people to receive the award, I was not expecting that to happen,” she admits.

“I can’t believe how much my life has changed with the support of my group.

“I will always be a disabled person and I will always need support. With the right support, I can see my potential.

“One of the highlights was seeing people I volunteer with and everyone else doing so well.

“I loved how many warm and positive interactions I can remember from the day and people were so friendly and supportive. It was a day that I will never forget.”

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From left: Director of Operations at NOW Group, Pauline Fitzsimons; CEO of the NOW Group, Maeve Monaghan; MC of the NOW Group graduation ceremony and radio presenter, Cate Conway; Director of Business and Organisational Development at NOW Group, Diane Hill; and (front) NOW Group graduates Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray.

From left: Director of Operations at NOW Group, Pauline Fitzsimons; CEO of the NOW Group, Maeve Monaghan; MC of the NOW Group graduation ceremony and radio presenter, Cate Conway; Director of Business and Organisational Development at NOW Group, Diane Hill; and (front) NOW Group graduates Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray.

From left: Director of Operations at NOW Group, Pauline Fitzsimons; CEO of the NOW Group, Maeve Monaghan; MC of the NOW Group graduation ceremony and radio presenter, Cate Conway; Director of Business and Organisational Development at NOW Group, Diane Hill; and (front) NOW Group graduates Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray.

Matthew agrees. “It was really exciting. The best bit was speaking on stage to everyone and the dinner.”

He adds that, while he is proud of himself, he found the courses really worthwhile and extremely enjoyable, and Danielle happily concurs.

“My group is the place to come when you feel you’ve lost hope in people or the world or if you’re struggling to see your future in a positive light.

“The courses are always interesting and the environment is a welcoming one.

“If you can recall bad experiences from things such as being misunderstood or bullied for being neurodiverse or disabled in any way, it doesn’t replicate in my group.

“You will be fully encouraged and rewarded, and they will let you take things at your own pace.”

For more information visit: nowgroup.org


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