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

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

Coming from a range of 12 academies including warehousing, digital, retail, tourism, cleaning, business administration and employability, they have been eagerly awaiting their big day for almost two years after the postponement in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Danielle Scott, from Belfast, completed the academy courses in Catering and Hospitality Skills, Progression to Employment and Essential Skills. Danielle now has a job at the Loaf Cafe on Grosvenor Road.

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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 also had fun and learned a lot because there’s a lot of time spent breaking the ice and getting to know each other.

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

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

Matthew Gray has also graduated in the course of employment, essential skills, retail and financial management.

“I liked meeting new people and working as a team,” he says.

“I like its structure. People don’t have to worry, everyone is very helpful.

The NOW Group, established in 2000, works to help people with learning difficulties, disabilities and autism acquire essential skills and competencies for life and work and helps them access future jobs.

“The course helped my self-esteem. It showed me that I could get things done in the right environment and with the right support,” explained Danielle, who also earned an NVQ Level 1 qualification in catering.

“I had the chance to live an experience of teamwork. It helped me to come out of my shell a bit.

“I always hoped to find a place in this world and now I have found it.”

Matthew also found the course beneficial for his personal well-being, saying, “It made me more confident and independent.” He said he would like to work in a busy little shop one day.

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

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

“Early in my journey, my amazing job agent guided me into volunteering with NOW Group and Loaf Cafe.

“She helped me see where I wanted to be and then take the leap to get there.

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

“I always thought I would be a counselor because I like to listen and be there for others in any way I can.

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

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

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

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

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NOW Group CEO Maeve Monaghan and Matthew Gray.


NOW Group CEO Maeve Monaghan and Matthew Gray.

NOW Group CEO Maeve Monaghan and Matthew Gray.

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

Over the past year, it has supported over 1,540 participants through its initiatives. And along with the 12 academies, it also offers soft skills programs and has held over 1,000 courses.

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

“It was surreal to speak in front of so many people to receive the award, I didn’t expect 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 help. With the right support, I can see my potential.

“One of the highlights has been seeing the people I volunteer with and all the others doing so well.

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

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Left to right: NOW Group COO Pauline Fitzsimons;  NOW Group CEO, Maeve Monaghan;  MC of the band NOW graduation ceremony and radio host, Cate Conway;  Director of Business and Organizational Development at NOW Group, Diane Hill;  and (in front) NOW Group graduates Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray.


Left to right: NOW Group COO Pauline Fitzsimons; NOW Group CEO, Maeve Monaghan; MC of the band NOW graduation ceremony and radio host, Cate Conway; Director of Business and Organizational Development at NOW Group, Diane Hill; and (in front) NOW Group graduates Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray.

Left to right: NOW Group COO Pauline Fitzsimons; NOW Group CEO, Maeve Monaghan; MC of the band NOW graduation ceremony and radio host, Cate Conway; Director of Business and Organizational Development at NOW Group, Diane Hill; and (in front) NOW Group graduates Danielle Scott and Matthew Gray.

Matthew agrees. “It was really exciting. The best was to talk to everyone on stage and at dinner.

He adds that, although he is proud of himself, he found the classes really interesting and extremely enjoyable, and Danielle happily agrees.

“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 lessons are always interesting and the environment is welcoming.

“If you can recall bad experiences such as being misunderstood or being bullied because you are neurodiverse or disabled in any way, that doesn’t happen in my group.

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

For more information visit: nowgroup.org

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