Bon Voyage Jessica!

A 26 year-old Cookstown woman will jet off to South Africa next week to speak at the one of the world’s biggest Down Syndrome conferences.

Jessica Eastwood, from Orritor Street in the town, will join five others to represent Northern Ireland at the prestigious World Down Syndrome Conference in Cape Town on August 13th.

Jessica will share her experience of working within the community and those less fortunate with hundreds of people from around the world after taking part in a special three year project.

From 2010 the kind hearted 26 year-old has dedicated her time to volunteering, fundraising and building relationships within the Province and as far as Romania through the Down Syndrome Association’s Citizenship Project.

The aims of the project were to encourage and increase participants understanding of community and citizenship, learn about other cultures and bring about change for others.

In October last year Jessica, along with staff and volunteers from the Down Syndrome Association, visited Romania and built a house and shed for those living within the poverty stricken region. She also volunteered her time with homeless charity the Simon Community, and local charity St Vincent de Paul and completed the Belfast Marathon last year.

“Jessica is so excited,” mum Deirdre told the MAIL, “All participants will have a little speech to make, along with a wonderful PowerPoint presentation showcasing their work in Romania.

“She is one of six going, four girls and two boys. They will talk about what citizenship means to them, what poverty means and how they worked in a practical setting with their voluntary work.”

The group will also touch upon how Northern Ireland has been in conflict, identifying with other nations from around the world who too have been in conflict and the positive outcome.

The trip will mark the end of the three year project, which started in 2010 and saw Jessica give up her time to work within her local community.

Mum Deirdre added: “The project began in the local community where the young people went out and got involved in voluntary work of whatever kind. Some worked in gardens, doing shopping, Jessica got a job working in St Vincent de Paul charity shop and she loved it and is still there.”

“Year two was going to Romania, along with the Habitat for Humanity charity, where they continued on with community work and began to explore the whole concept of citizenship. “They had to do their own fundraising for Romania as it was very expensive. Some of them opted to do various fundraising activities and Jessica raised quite a lot of money just by getting sponsorship and walking in the half marathon in Belfast.

“In October they all headed out to Romania. They had a fantastic time and built a house and a shed for people in need and I think it was such a tremendous hit, it had never been done before.

“The organisers had to actually go and look for more work for them because they had did it that well and quick. So they were all able to practice their wheel-barrowing and digging, they had great craic doing it as well.

“They also made a lot of visits in Romania they went to an orphanage and met the children there, they went out for dinner, they had a lovely social time there as well as everything else,” said Deirdre.

“Year three is now, with the World Down Syndrome Conference. A couple of charities already in South Africa have said they are keenly interested in availing of their services whilst they are there, it is a very exciting time.”

Dynamic Jessica, who is also involved with the Down Syndrome Dance Troupe, is already a very busy woman.

She holds down a job with McDonald’s, and is an active member of the Superstars Club in the town.

“Jessica is a very independent girl. She goes to the gym, the cinema, anything that a normal 26 year-old. She enjoys life to the full and has a great social life.

“As a parent I would be very keen on encouraging Jessica’s independence because I’m not always going to be around, she’s got her sisters but they don’t live locally. People in the town know here very well and she can move about the community on her own, quite safely.”

“People with Down Syndrome have everything done for them, but they never get the chance to do things for other people in the community,” adds Deirdre, “But I think this project has shown just how independant and dynamic, Jessica and the other participants, can be.”