Belfast mum calls on public to support Mencap in half marathon

Jenny Lee talks to one mother whose family have benefited from the new Mencap Children's Centre, which provides specialist early intervention for children with learning disabilities

Three year old Charlie Butler and his mum, Janelle McKee are calling on the public to run the Belfast City Half Marathon in aid of Mencap
Three year old Charlie Butler and his mum, Janelle McKee are calling on the public to run the Belfast City Half Marathon in aid of Mencap

AS RUNNERS begin to log miles as part of their training for the upcoming Deep RiverRock Belfast City Half Marathon in September, Belfast parent Janelle McKee is calling on participants to race in support of Mencap, the event’s official charity.

Mencap supports children and young people with a learning disability, like Janelle’s son, three-year-old Charlie Butler.

When he was born, Charlie was diagnosed with microcephaly, a rare neurological condition which caused his head and brain to grow slower than other children.

"I had an idea that Charlie might have a disability when I was pregnant as my 7-year-old daughter Katie-Louise also has the condition," Janelle says.

"Katie-Louise attended Mencap’s nursery in the past, so I wanted to find a spot for Charlie. I knew from my experience with my daughter that Mencap would make a huge difference in Charlie’s development."

Charlie first attended the Segal House Nursery, before the charity moved to their £4.6 million purpose-built Mencap Centre in January this year.

Janelle says the changes she’s seen in him since then have been "mind-blowing".

"Charlie used to be a very timid little boy and did not like to venture out to play with other kids. Now he will talk and interact with other children at the park – I know this is purely because of the confidence he has gained at the Mencap Children’s Centre.

"Thanks to his keyworker Paul and staff he gradually was encouraged to play with others. It's marvellous to watch him at home playing toys with his sister and cousin.

"The nursery have encouraged his speech as well as teaching him to communicate by Makaton, which is fantastic as his sister is non-verbal and they can now sign with each other."

The Children’s Centre, a nursery for 2-4-year-old children with a learning disability, autism or developmental delay is at the heart of the new Mencap Centre in Newtownbreda.

Margaret Kelly, Director, Mencap in Northern Ireland, is delighted too witness the children benefitting from the new facilities.

"The nursery has been fitted with equipment specifically designed to help the development of children with a learning disability. The Multi-Sensory Play Area, for example, was designed to help children at the nursery improve their speech, hand-eye coordination, motor skills and their understanding of the world around them," she explains.

There is also greatly improved outdoor space, which has particularly benefited Charlie.

"He has low muscle-tone and requires medication to help prevent his muscles going into spasm. The new centre has much larger room which enable lots of movement activities.

"The outdoor area is fantastic and the ride-on toys have really helped build his muscle strength," says his mum.

The new Mencap Centre houses therapists from the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, so children and their families can have easy access to a variety of therapies in one place, instead of having to travel to a number of appointments.

"Charlie has received physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. It has been so beneficial because Charlie finds sitting in a car very frustrating, so to have the therapists in one building has been so stress free," Janelle adds.

The Mencap Centre has enabled the charity to reach out to more families with learning disabilties through initiatives such as a summer scheme for older children. “The Mencap Centre also has a ‘changing places’ toilet in which families of people with a learning disability can drop in and use if they are out and about in the Newtownbreda area.

"We want families to feel that the centre is a place they can meet with others, organise play dates and attend parent-to-parent support sessions."

Through fundraising efforts such as the 2016 Deep RiverRock Belfast City Half Marathon, Mencap hope to raise the funds to increase this further with a new family support programme.

"The programme, which will launch in 2017, aims to help parents like Janelle navigate raising a child with a learning disability. Our family support team will reach out to families who give birth to a child with a learning disability at the point of diagnosis or shortly after. The team will take time to get to know each family, listen to their experiences and make sure they receive the advice and care they need in order to help every child reach their full potential. Following the pilot and evaluation stage, Mencap plan to extend the service across Northern Ireland,” explains Margaret Kelly.

Janelle believes this service will be invaluable to parents. "I was 18 and a very young parent when I had Katie Louise. I felt very isolated and lonely.

"There were no baby and toddler groups I could take her to and I hadn't ever heard of her condition. The Mencap team has been an amazing source of support for both me and my children.

"I want the public to know that any donations given through the half marathon will make a real difference."

:: The Deep RiverRock Belfast City Half Marathon is on Sunday September 18 and the deadline to enter is Friday September 2. To sign up in aid of Mencap, visit, e-mail or call 028 9069 1351.