A very special program on the Gold Coast is making sport inclusive by teaching fundamental sports skills to children with a range of disabilities.
The program, which is called the Gold Coast Inclusive Sports Program, began its first season in 2016 after several years of planning, with just 30 children, aged between five and 17.
Now, in 2019, the program has reached 90 athletes and more than 100 volunteers.
What is perhaps most unusual about the program is that it was the brainchild of Gold Coast local, 20-year-old Alex Wells, who was just a 14-year-old high school student when she first came up with the idea.
Ms Wells said she started the program because she noticed there was a gap in sporting programs for children with disabilities on the Gold Coast and wanted to fix that.
“I decided there needs to be more programs so everyone can be included and play sport, because it is such a fundamental part of society and learning, and health,” Ms Wells said.
“Sport was such a massive part of my upbringing, it didn’t feel right that other people didn’t get that opportunity to play sport,” she said.
“We had our very first season in 2016, and that was after about a year and a half [of] planning, so in that year and a half of planning we spoke to politicians and other programs for kids with additional needs.”
The GCISP season runs from April to September, with sessions taking place once a fortnight in Ormeau at the Lutheran Ormeau District School (LORDS), which is the school that helped Ms Wells plan and implement her idea for the program when she was still a student there.
Ms Wells said she started developing the program when she was 14, with the encouragement of her principal.
“One day, when I told my principal about this idea, it was kind of an off the cuff comment, and she was like ‘why you don’t do it’,” Ms Wells said.
The GCISP is one of the only Gold Coast based programs that offers children with disabilities a chance to learn and play various sports, including cricket, soccer, and basketball.
Ms Wells said the activities at the GCISP also focused on developing fine and gross motor skills.
“[The athletes] definitely love cricket, but we also play basketball [and] soccer,” she said.
“We do a lot of fine and gross motor skills, so throwing balls into hoops, or throwing and catching tennis balls, skipping and Hoola-hoops, and lots of games, especially with our junior teams, they love playing over and under ball, and playing with the parachutes,” she said.
“It’s all about having fun for them and making sure they are still developing those fine and gross motor skills, because its physical therapy for them, but they don’t actually know it.”
Ms Wells said they had children with a range of conditions taking part in the program.
“We have some children with cerebral palsy, some with autism and ADHD,” she said.
“Some kids don’t have… [a disability], but they might have been bullied in sporting teams, and are very shy and don’t have any social skills, so they come to the GCISP and are made to feel welcome, and then they grow those skills in confidence and leadership and teamwork, so they can go on and move to other sporting teams.”
Donna Alexander has two children participating in the program, and said she first came across the GCISP on Facebook.
“I have two children, one is 12 and he is, I guess, as normal as normal can be, and I have Riley, who is 10, and has autism,” Ms Alexander said.
“I just thought it was a great way to get Riley out of the house,” she said.
“At that time, he was a little bit addicted to the iPad, so I thought ‘let’s get him off the iPad and into sport’, and both Brock and Riley actually do it [together].”
“It was good for Brock to engage with other kids with disabilities, and just get out there and have fun with Riley.”
Ms Alexander said she had noticed the impact the program had had on both her boys.
“Brock has a better understanding of different abilities now, whereas Riley, when he first started, he didn’t want to participate at all,” she said.
“Now he will engage, he will wait, like turn-taking, he is better at that now, and sharing, and actually participating,” Ms Alexander said.
“Last fortnight, I saw [Riley] kicking the soccer ball and actually engaging,” she said.
One of the interesting things about the GCISP is the age of the volunteers, who are mostly school-aged children from LORDS.
“One of the best parts of our programs, it that around 95 per cent of our volunteers are high school students,” Ms Wells said.
“They are giving up their Saturday every fortnight for a few hours to come down and bond here, which I think is incredible.”
“We know that our athletes get along better with other young people, so we are seeing a lot of bonding and friendships developing between the volunteers and athletes, which is really nice to see.”
GCISP volunteer 16-year-old Couper Galea said he first starting volunteering when he was just 11 years old.
“Alex is a close family friend and she pitched the idea to me, and I liked the idea of helping kids with disabilities play sport,” Mr Galea said.
“As a person who does quite well at sport, I love giving back in helping [the athletes] achieve what they want in terms of sport [skills],” he said.
“It’s definitely taken away stereotypes of what people with disabilities are like as you get really close to the kids and get to know them more.”
Mr Galea said the program had certainly changed his outlook on helping people.
“When the participants first come to the program, within two weeks they’re very happy, so the reaction you get out of helping them is positive,” he said.
“[There was] this boy… he was non-verbal, but he showed expressions of joy and feelings and all that through grunts or gestures, and at first, he didn’t want to do anything,” Mr Galea said.
“Within two to three fortnights, he was just so happy and joyful, and having a go and getting involved.”
For more information about the Gold Coast Inclusive Sports Program, visit their Facebook page.