COMING from a farming background, Maria Mageean always had a keen interest in agriculture, with high hopes of one day pursuing a career in the industry.
Aged just 21 she has finally achieved that dream, however, her road to success has been a rocky one, not least because of a devastating road traffic collision in her teenage years which left her with a life-altering brain injury.
Despite the challenges this posed, Ballynoe-born Maria remained determined to pursue a career in the farming sector and work towards her dream of one day having a farm of her own.
With the help of the Cedar Foundation, a charity which supports people living with disability, autism and brain injuries find their way into work and training, Maria joined its Inclusion Programme and successfully applied for a place on a course at Bishop Burton College in Yorkshire, England where she completed a Certificate of Higher Education in Agriculture.
The charity also provided financial support to Maria that allowed her to complete invaluable additional one-day courses at Bishop Burton to boost her career aspirations such as a Certificate in Tractor Driving.
Unsurprisingly, Maria’s brain injury meant she faced more challenges than the average student and had to spend more time than most working out which aspect of farming best suited to her needs.
She explained: “Trying to find a career in the agricultural sector that would be manageable for me, given the effects of my injury was a challenge.
“I initially wanted to work in the dairy sector, but given the labour involved in using the milking machines and other equipment, this was not workable as it increased my back pain.
“Learning skills to manage my fatigue was a challenge. Agricultural work involves long hours so I knew I would have to find a way to manage my fatigue in order for me to be successful in this industry.”
Maria worked closely with her case officer, Jordan Madden, to design an individual programme based around her needs and aspirations to build confidence and independence.
Following initial assessments an action plan was drawn up to address her personal barriers and agree solutions to meet her goals.
She added: “It was really a matter of finding an area of agriculture that I enjoyed working in and then learning strategies that helped me manage my fatigue.
“Once I got in control of my fatigue I was then able to build on my hours of activity until I gradually got to the point where I was able to do a full week’s work, and that has allowed me to progress to where I am now.”
During her course, Maria secured a 12-week work placement at Firtree pig farm where she gained extensive experience and developed her skillset of rearing pigs.
This experience gained in the pig sector has paid dividends as upon her return to her home on the outskirts of Downpatrick, she was head-hunted to work as a Farm Manager for the pig section of F&S Smith Farm, Ballykinlar in County Down, a role she has settled into well with the continued support of her case officer.
The Cedar Foundation believes Maria has found her calling in life and says it is a testament to her passion, hard work and resilience that she has been so successful in already securing a footing in the farming industry at such a young age.
Cedar’s Inclusion Works team has been successful in securing funding from the European Social Fund during the second call of applications.
Through its work, it has supported over 700 people with disabilities to achieve their goals of employment and inclusion, including 112 people into paid jobs.
For people living with disability this funding means that Cedar can continue to work in partnership with local councils, health trusts, employers and training providers to progress inclusion for people with disability through work, training, volunteering, gaining new skills and qualifications.
People with disabilities face multiple barriers to employment resulting in high levels of economic inactivity and social exclusion.
Only 37.8 per cent of working age disabled people are in work versus 77.9 per cent without disabilities. People with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to have no qualifications.
However, through its 75 years’ experience of supporting people with disability, Cedar has demonstrated that these barriers can be overcome with specialist support.
Victoria Quinn, an Occupational Therapist with the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust Community Brain Injury Team, commented: “The close partnership working we have with Cedar Inclusion Works Service continues to support those living with a Brain Injury to achieve their vocational goals by either returning to the workplace or expanding their career choices.
“Our service users value the support from Cedar and gain from the partnership working with the Community Brain Injury Team”.
Cedar’s Director of Employability & Community Inclusion, Elaine Armstrong, added: “We are delighted to be able to continue working with our partners in Health and Social Care, Local Councils, Employers and Training Providers to support people with disabilities to overcome the challenges they face to reach their potential and achieve significant goals of work and training.”