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Posted on 26 Apr 26 Apr

Belfast grandfather is raising money for Mencap in his grandson’s memory ahead of the Belfast marathon

With the 2017 Deep RiverRock Belfast City Marathon just days away, Belfast man James Gillen has been busy recruiting runners to take part and fundraise for Mencap, in honour of his much loved grandson, Odhran Varney.

Odhran was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome at birth. As a toddler, he attended Mencap’s nursery for 2-4-year-olds with a learning disability, autism or developmental delay.

Odhran sadly passed away aged 5 on Christmas Day in 2016. To honour Odhran’s memory, James has recruited two fundraising relay teams and two Fun Runners to take part in the marathon and support the charity that did so much for Odhran and his family.

“The Mencap team was absolutely fantastic with Odhran,” James said. “When Odhran started at Mencap’s nursery, he wasn’t walking and couldn’t communicate. By the time he left, he was walking and had learned the Makaton system, a language programme similar to sign language. The Mencap team later taught the family Makaton so we could communicate with him, which was very special.   

“It was very tough when we lost Odhran at Christmas.  It was a complete shock. Odhran was the son of my daughter, Nicole, and this has been the worst period of her life.”

To raise money for Mencap, James has recruited participants through his football club, Sport and Leisure Swifts FC in Belfast. He and the club members have been actively fundraising through a JustGiving page, collection buckets and sponsorship sheets. James added:

“We will always remember Odhran as a bright, bubbly child and much of his development was a result of the work with Mencap. We just felt if we could give something back to the charity for the support they gave us, that would be the best thing we could do.

“I encourage people across Northern Ireland to raise money for Mencap during the marathon – every penny helps. We will be eternally grateful for what Mencap did for our family and I hope our story encourages others to donate to this amazing charity.”

Margaret Kelly, Director, Mencap Northern Ireland, said:

“We truly appreciate James and his family for sharing their story and for their fundraising in Odhran’s memory. Mencap exists to help children like Odhran with a learning disability have a full life and to offer support to families whenever they need it.

“We are looking forward to seeing all the runners, walkers, wheelchair racers and relay team members out on Marathon Day on 1st May. We urgently need donations to keep crucial initiatives running, such as our upcoming Early Years Service, which will help families with a child diagnosed with a learning disability. We really appreciate everyone who has signed up to fundraise in aid of Mencap and to support our crucial services and encourage all of them to keep fundraising and help us make a critical difference in a child’s life.

“For those who cannot take part in the marathon, donations can be made online at”

To learn how you can #StepUp4Mencap at the 2017 Deep RiverRock Belfast City Marathon as a participant or volunteer, email, call 02890 691 351 or visit

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