Families benefit from all-season access to sensory garden in Belfast

Two women support a little girl who is riding a donkey

How Barbara Hanna has helped to create an all season sensory garden at the Donkey Assisted Therapy Centre, Belfast.

I’ve been a customer of Engage Mutual for over 11 years now and have been a volunteer at the Donkey Assisted Therapy Centre for three years. When the letter came through the door about the Community Awards, I immediately thought of the donkey sanctuary.

There is a huge lack of services available to children with learning difficulties in Northern Ireland. When I was bringing up my own son, who has autism, facilities like the therapy centre didn’t exist, so to be able to make a difference now to the children who visit us really is a blessing.

“The benefits of donkey assisted therapy are immense, encouraging the physical, social and emotional development of children and others with additional needs.”

Over 230 children visit the therapy centre every week to interact with the donkeys – whether this is grooming them or riding them. The benefits are fantastic and the leaders work with every individual who comes to the centre to set objectives. These can be anything from core stability, to building social skills, or even just arranging a lovely day out with their families.

I am a member of the Parents and Friends Association at the therapy centre. We’ve been fundraising hard in order to create a new sensory garden, which will provide a stimulating environment to everyone – children and young adults with disabilities, their families, elderly people and the wider public who visit the centre.

The funding from the Foundation will allow the centre to purchase a wooden gazebo, ensuring that the sensory garden can be an all year round facility and the children can still be outside in bad weather.

“The gazebo is a vital part of the garden and a focal part of the plans. Without the funding, it wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground.”

The gazebo will accommodate individual children needing their own space or can be used by families and small groups of children from special schools with their teachers for educational purposes. The project will add impact to the sterling work already being done by the sanctuary for people with special needs.

It was a real boost to get the funding from the Foundation. We’ve never been through a process like the Community Awards before and it was really exciting. We did work hard to get as many votes as we could in the end but it really has been worth it.

“When I applied for the Community Award, the thought never even occurred to me that we could win. We really can’t thank the Foundation enough!”

Getting people together to build up support has been a really enjoyable and rewarding process. Parents and communities across the region have really got behind our cause and we’re overwhelmed by the response we received.

We cannot thank everyone enough for their votes and support, the difference this will make to the children who use the sanctuary is immeasurable.

The Foundation means the world to me. Being able to apply for something that you’re really passionate about is amazing and the sense of achievement when you’ve actually won is marvellous. It’s such a privilege to be in this position.

I am so so pleased that I applied for the award and I can now give it back to our wonderful school. To anyone thinking of applying, go for it. Put your heart in to it, write down all your thoughts and feelings about the project and I’m sure you will have the success that we have had with our award.