BBC News (British Broadcasting Corporation)

The Gateway Club is a place where people with learning difficulties can enjoy a night out. part-time

The club that you'll always leave in good form

If you've ever driven through Newry towards Warrenpoint you'll know where The Gateway Club is.

Nestled in the corner of a carpark on Kilmorey Street, the sprawling centre has offered people with Down's Syndrome and learning difficulties a social outlet for half a century.

The building blocks of the centre are quite literally that.

They are the fruits of a campaign fronted by Newry icon Pat Jennings urging people to buy a brick.

The framed campaign poster now takes pride of place on the wall of the centre's main hall that it helped build.

This year the club turns 50. Paddy Duffy has been involved for nearly 40 of those years.

"Some of our members would be standing from four o'clock waiting for their lift because they know it's gateway night and it's been that way for years and years," he said.

"You come in here at night, you could be in good form or bad form but you'll certainly leave here in good form.

"The club was founded in 1973 by a good friend of mine Willie McGivern. Willie had a disabled son, Declan, and Willie was looking for proper rights for Declan in terms of proper schooling and recreation.

"Back then people laughed or sneered at people with Down's Syndrome or a learning difficulty and they were very much kept at home.

"But we have brought these people to a level where they are socially skilled. They can go and work.

"I take them to Belgium and all over the place - to a restaurant, to the swimming pool or to a bar."

Now in his 70s, Paddy will this year retire from his role at the gateway but there is still plenty of young blood keeping the centre pumping.

Among those taking an active role is youth leader Lisa Rea.

"I've been coming here since I was a child," she said.

"My mum was a volunteer since I was a baby so I was brought into it through my family.

"There are so many friendships here. It is literally like coming in to see your family. You know everybody your whole life, it's just amazing."

With about 150 members split over junior and senior nights, the club is a hive of activity.

On the senior club night last Tuesday the arts and crafts room was packed for a crown making workshop.

In the games room there were pool, draughts and darts games and in the arts studio a group was preparing for an upcoming performance.

According to club member Olivia the drama group is "where we do shows and entertain the parents".

"We do Christmas, Easter and summer. I love dancing drama. At the minute we are doing our summer talent show.

"It's going to be good fun. We do different things to see what people are good at."

If Olivia is still planning her performance, Conor's mind has been made up.

"I'm Elvis Presley. I'd like to dedicate the routine to my mum, with all of my heart."

The club is also hoping to convert a currently unused room into a sensory suite in the near future.

After the workshops are over, it's time for tea in the café before the centrepiece of the evening - a disco in the main hall.

But the real party, marking half a century of joy will take place in November.

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