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Meet the Kildare woman whose son's special needs inspired her to start changing children's lives

Karen Leigh set up the charity six years ago, to help fill gaps that left children stuck on HSE waiting lists.

Image: Sensational Kids via YouTube
Sensational Kids shouldn’t really need to exist, and if all the waiting lists didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here. But I love what we do and I love the impact. What we do, we do very well and we hear that from people.

KAREN LEIGH KNOWS first-hand what it’s like to have a child who has special needs, and the barriers that face them.

When she ran into issues getting proper care for her son, Conor (who’s now 14), she realised that something had to be done.

Rather than wait for someone else to make a move, and not content with leaving her son languishing on a HSE waiting list, she took things into her own hands.

Leigh founded Sensational Kids, which fills the gap between public and private services for children with varying needs.

That was six years ago, and now the service – which offers therapies and developmental help at a low cost – has continued to change and evolve to meet the needs of children not just in Kildare, where Sensational Kids is based, but around Ireland.

Sensational Kids Fairy Door Workshop, Monday, 17th August, 2015. Fairy Queens Yvonne O’ Neill and Eliza Shilev with kids, Hannah, and Rebecca Lambert, at a Fairy Door Workshop preparing for the Sensational Kids Elf & Fairy Festival at the National Stud Source: Tony Keane

Parents from as far away as Donegal, Cork, and Waterford have all brought their children to Sensational Kids for services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy.

It’s not unusual for someone from Limerick to drive up to us on a Saturday.

“Over 3000 children have been through our doors,” said Leigh. “It has really snowballed. It just demonstrates the need for this service. We bridge the gap between private service and public service for children.”

“It never ceases to amaze me”

“I think at the time we probably didn’t realise how big the need was out there,” said Leigh of their early years.

It never ceases to amaze me every single day the number of children who come through our doors who need help.
There is no reason for children to be struggling in school with concentration and handwriting.

Initially, Sensational Kids was for children with special needs, but now it is for children – and teens – of all abilities.

Leigh quotes research that says one in four children in lreland has a special education need, as a way of demonstrating how many kids need developmental help.

This includes teens who need help organising themselves for their leaving cert, or who might struggle with speech or writing.

“We really went with what the demand was out there for the service,” said Leigh. Their aim is to help children reach their potential – not just through early intervention, but catching those who fall through the education net.

Sensational Kids Fairy Door Workshop, Monday, 17th August, 2015. Fairy Queen Yvonne O’Neill (centre) with Alexandra O’Toole, Devin Connolly, Isobel Crosbie, Ava Burke, Mia Burke and Alison Crosbie pictured at a Fairy Door Workshop preparing for the Sensational Kids Elf & Fairy Festival Source: Tony Keane

A recent win of a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland impact award will see €100k going to Sensational Kids, as well as two years of mentorship. “The exciting thing is it it will help us grow in scale,” said Leigh.

Funding from the Ireland Funds has helped them offer their transition to secondary school programme to parents and children for a nominal fee.

Money struggles

With such a big need, Leigh says that Sensational Kids is still on starting its journey.  She is still learning, too, as the head of a social enterprise.

She describes the financial side of running Sensational Kids as “a rollercoaster”.

They still struggle with funding, even though they have gotten better at applying for it.

It can be a very lonely place, to run a social enterprise. I often think social enterprises and charities are more difficult to run. You are constantly struggling for funding. Balancing the books is diffcult, looking after employees, making sure everyone is happy, looking after corporate governance and regulation. We’ve had very bad days, we have had very good days.

But “at the end of the day, it all comes back to the child”, she said. “That would be our key performance indicator. It’s all about impact and knowing you’re making a difference.”

Source: Sensational Kids Charity/YouTube

In the early days, they sometimes worried about keeping the doors open.

We literally go month to month. We are not one of these charities that are State-funded. We really do struggle to balance the books because we don’t get any government funding.

They run a shop and training workshop to gather funds. Without this, they would lose an essential €9,000 a month.

“That’s the gap we have to fill,” said Leigh. The HSE buys some services from Sensational Kids, which also helps, as do fundraising activities.

HSE waiting lists

Their most popular services are, unsurprisingly, speech and language therapy – for which there are big waiting lists across Ireland – and occupational therapy.

“3000 children who have been through our doors would otherwise be on the [HSE] waiting list,” pointed out Leigh.

“We deliver timely intervention for them when they need it,” said Leigh.

It is not good to leave children on a waiting list for years. It is also adding to their problems in terms of self esteem and confidence. That is really very detrimental to their development, and you can be getting into mental health difficulties there. Hopefully we provide a solution to that problem.
All those waiting lists and they never seem to be fixed. It never gets any better. We provide them with an option that is accessible and affordable.

Her son Conor, the reason behind Sensational Kids, is “doing great” today. He’s going into second year in secondary school, and has “come on hugely” in the last few years.

In an effort to raise €20,000, Sensational Kids is holding an Enchanted Fairy and Elf Festival at the National Stud on 5 September. Tickets are €29.50 for a family of two adults of up to four children under 16, and can be bought at the venue on the day.

Read: Three years after falling into a coma, Pádraig’s family prepare to bring him home>

Read: Stammering in Ireland: “It was ignored in the family – nobody talked about it”>

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