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‘A spectacular place’: Parents laud Camphill School for ‘transformation’ of son with Down’s syndrome

Aloyise, Niall and Hilary Mulligan at their home in Banchory. Picture by Paul Glendell
Aloyise, Niall and Hilary Mulligan at their home in Banchory. Picture by Paul Glendell

The parents of a 21-year-old with Down’s syndrome have spoken of their amazement at his transformation over three years at Aberdeen’s Camphill School.

Niall Mulligan went from using a wheelchair almost every time he left the house to walking alpacas around their paddock, and even mucking in with the gardening.

It is a change that his mum and dad Aloyise and Hilary could never have imagined when they first brought him to the facility in August 2018.

Prior to joining, Niall had spent all of his primary and secondary school years at St Andrew’s Special School in Inverurie, and while he enjoyed his time there, his parents said there were “limitations” due to the large spectrum of children educated there.

His muscles would get tired quickly as a side effect of his hypermobility, and his family resolved to let him use a wheelchair when going out for long walks and shopping.

Camphill transformative for Niall

Mr Mulligan said: “When he went to St Andrew’s, when they went away on school trips, they basically followed our guidance which was that Niall might get tired so they should use the wheelchair with him.

“Maybe we all got so used to using the wheelchair, we never thought beyond that.”

However, that changed after Aloyise and Hilary, both 56, first brought their son to the Milltimber-based Rudolf Steiner school.

Niall Mulligan with a horse at Camphill School.

Mrs Mulligan, a lecturer in education at Aberdeen University, said: “When he started at Camphill, I had the chair the first day, and he literally couldn’t walk to the end of their path which is about 10 metres. That would have been his limit.

“But they have just transformed him.”

The grounds, described by Mr Mulligan as “idyllic”, are situated on the banks of the River Dee, and include a number of gardens and fields with animals such as horses, chickens and alpacas.

Mrs Mulligan said: “They realised quickly at Camphill that Niall just loves animals, so they did things like putting the alpacas on reins and Niall started walking with them.

“You’ve never seen anything like it, these three alpacas and he’s got the lead.”

Helping improve lives

After several years of relying heavily on the wheelchair, Niall had put on some weight, but he quickly lost it with all the time he spent outdoors at the school.

Mrs Mulligan added: “It’s a spectacular place. Because his physical experience has been so good there, it’s actually improved him mentally as well.”

Camphill School Aberdeen was founded in June 1940 by a group of Austrian refugees, who wanted to use Steiner’s educational philosophy to help children with additional support needs.

Niall exploring the Milltimber grounds.

Their project, which included a focus on practical outdoor activities, soon grew into a movement, and today there are more than 100 Camphill communities in countries across Europe, North America, Asia and Africa.

Alex Bush, Executive Director at Camphill School Aberdeen said: “Our main aim at Camphill is to empower our young people to grow in confidence, independence and reach their full potential whilst offering a high quality of life that is often not possible within a mainstream environment.

“Niall’s journey with us has been truly remarkable and we have all been inspired by how far he has come.

“Through our integrated approach, Niall has been enabled to fully flourish, make friends and grow in confidence every day.”

For Niall, whose older brothers Ronan and Ciaran work in London, the school meant he formed a group of friends for the first time in his life and got the opportunity to try out new skills – the latest being sanding and drilling with power tools.

Mr Mulligan said: “Camphill has provided Niall with the opportunity to try these things out, and expand his horizons.

“That’s really, for us, the beauty of the place.”

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