Raheny All-Stars are shining bright
By John Harrington
There were smiles all around in Áras an Uachtaráin yesterday when the Raheny GAA All-Stars met President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.
The All-Stars are a group of children with special needs who learn GAA skills with a dedicated group of coaches every Friday at Raheny GAA Club.
The brainchild of Raheny club-member Maria Curtis, the All-Stars have gone from strength to strength since the initiative was launched in 2016 and yesterday’s trip to the Áras was a well-deserved reward for all the hard work of everyone involved.
“Listen, it was just incredible,” Maria Curtis told GAA.ie today.
“It was just very, very special. He (President Higgins) was very focused on us and there was a lot of banter about the Galway colours and that kind of thing. It was just fantastic.”
Maria’s daughter Ella has Down Syndrome which was what gave her the initial idea of providing her with the same opportunity to play Gaelic Games with Raheny that her son had.
“I approached the club and asked could I set up a group for children who wouldn't be able to manage in a typical team,” said Curtis.
"They were just great. They gave me loads of support and we got our GPO Will Lillis involved. Then a couple of parents came forward to help, Kevin Woods and Catherine Bedford-Leech, who is a special needs assistant, so she helps with the coaches.
“I put the word out. I knew some families who might be interested, and that was in 2016. So we're just over 18 months up and running. We started out with Ella and another local boy and now we have 15 kids.”
All of the kids involved have benefited massively from the sporting and social outlet, and it’s also helped to create a tight-knit community among the parents of the children.
“Some of the kids would have older siblings who play for the club,” said Curtis. “One man said to me, his son even identifies with putting on the jersey, so wearing the colours was a big thing for him.
“He'd normally be on the sidelines watching his older brother play, so this is his time.
“There's one boy who has autism and his mother was saying to me that he's always on his iPad and this is the only play-time he comes out to and run around for every week, and he loves it, so that's incredible.
“The kids come every week and the big smiles would just melt your heart. They're fabulous.
“They're really enjoying it and the parents are getting a little bit of a break, a bit of respite. It's just a win-win really for everybody. It's just been fantastic."
One of the main ingredients of the success of the Raheny All-Stars initiative has been the involvement of a number of local transition year students who do great work helping out with the coaching.
“Some of the kids would have high-end needs so they'd need one to one coaching,” explained Curtis.
“So we have transition year students, boys and girls, from local schools helping us out with that.
“They came to us the first year and some of them stayed on and then we got a second batch last year. They've been really fantastic. It's great for them too, because they're getting a great experience with the kids.
“That's what makes it work, that we can give the children one two one coaching because they wouldn't manage necessarily on their own.”
Curtis is hopeful the success of the Raheny All-Stars will inspire other clubs to develop similar initiatives.
“The more people see it, the more likely they are to do it,” she said. “When I started off I did a very small bit of research with clubs around the area and people would like to do it but they're a little bit wary and worried.
“But I think once people see how easy it is and how successful it can be, hopefully more will do it.
“We’d encourage people out to have a look at how we do it in Raheny because when you see the kids and the coaches in interact with one another, it gives you a much better idea of how it all works.
“It's hard work and it's not always straightforward because some of the kids obviously have specific needs. But, overall, it's hugely positive.”
* Raheny GAA are one of the GAA's Official 'Healthy Clubs'. In an era when much of sport’s worth has become associated with winning alone, the Healthy Club Project (HCP) aims to champion the deeper values associated with the GAA: those of community, identity, volunteerism, inclusivity, health and wellbeing, and the opportunity to express oneself regardless of perceived abilities. The project is supported by Healthy Ireland and Irish Life. **