Olympian Rob Heffernan and Joey Corbett launching Challenge 21 for the Down Syndrome Centre Cork on World Down Syndrome Day on Tuesday. Photo: Darragh Kane

Do you accept this challenge?

“My son Finn was born during lockdown (May 2020). It was a time of immense fear of the unknown, worries about his health and his development. When I came across the Down Syndrome Centre Cork I couldn’t believe how lucky and fortunate we were to have this facility in Cork.”

Those were the words of Cathy Halpin as Down Syndrome Centre Cork this week launched its Challenge 21.

Irish champion race walker and Olympian Rob Heffernan is calling on people to join him on a fun and rewarding fitness challenge this. Now in its 2nd year, Challenge 21 participants will walk, jog or run a 21km distance from Haulbowline to Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday 18 June, with an inclusive finish line party hosted by Red FM's Stevie G.

Funds raised will go to supporting vital services for children with Down Syndrome in Cork. The centre, which supports over 150 children and their families, is wholly reliant on the generosity of the public and local businesses to stay in operation.

The route follows the proposed Greenway along Cork Harbour through Shanbally, Monkstown, Passage, Rochestown and on to Blackrock. The challenge, which is sponsored by Green Rebel Marine, is the equivalent distance of a half marathon, will take approximately three to four hours at a brisk walking pace. There will be plenty of support with water stations, toilet facilities, plenty of snacks and stewards along the route.

The 21km symbolises the extra chromosome that causes genetic condition that is Down Syndrome. Most babies inherit 23 chromosomes from each parent, for a total of 46 chromosomes. Babies with Down Syndrome, however, end up with 3 chromosomes at position 21.

This extra chromosome results in a lifelong condition, which may increase the risk of certain health issues and may also impact physical development and learning abilities, though each person with Down Syndrome is different.

All funds raised from Challenge 21 will go directly to support the Down Syndrome Centre Cork based on Forge Hill which offers services to children with Down Syndrome and their families.

Cathy Halpin continued: “We started online physio and got access to additional speech and language therapy (SLT) for Finn. Most importantly I got to meet other parents who I could share my worries and concerns with and also share Finn’s milestones and successes. It’s hard to describe how invaluable this support network is to parents of children with Downs Syndrome.

“When restrictions lifted it opened up another world for us again with in-person occupational therapy, SLT and physio, but more importantly kids get to meet other children, which encourages and supports their social development. That’s why services and centres like this are more essential than ever as they help children to thrive.”

Last year more than 300 family, friends and supporters of children who rely on the services of the centre took part. For 2023, they are hoping the wider public will get on board by sponsoring, participating, or donating.

Commenting at the launch of Challenge 21, Rob Heffernan said: “I’m delighted to get to combine my love for activity and all things Cork in aid of the Down Syndrome Centre Cork, which is a truly fantastic charity. I have been to visit the centre on many occasions and continue to be impressed with the facilities and the services and moreover am absolutely amazed by what a group of determined parents can do.

“They receive no government funding and are so passionate about providing the best start in life for their children which as a dad myself really struck a chord. I hope others will come out and join me on the day and get behind this fundraising effort as best as they can!”

Event organiser Cian Desmond, whose daughter Freya uses the services, said: “We are delighted with the support that this event has attracted from parents, the legend that is Rob Heffernan, the wider business community and especially our main event sponsor Green Rebel Marine. It’s great to see everyone getting behind our kids and we are really looking forward to the walk along Cork Harbour.”

Find out more, register or donate on C21.eventbrite.ie.

Billy Ryan, Cian Desmond, John O'Donovan and Sean Burke at the Challenge 21 for the Down Syndrome Centre Cork in 2022. Photo: Ann Charlotte Voie