Wexford host first ever Kellogg’s GAA Cúl Camp for Autistic children
By Michael Devlin
History was made at Innovate Wexford Park last week with the staging of the first ever Kellogg’s GAA Cúl Camp for children on the Autism Spectrum.
A totally unique initiative, over 120 kids attended the camp from Tuesday to Thursday, organised as part of the Wexford GAA WELLness programme in conjunction with Leinster Council.
Wexford GAA teamed up with Wexford-based support group CAN (Cottage Autism Network) under the banner ‘Dream Big’, something which Wexford Games Development Manager Ray Harris says began as a way to promote inclusivity in the GAA.
“The origins came from John Horan when he addressed the Seanad Éireann in January, he spoke about inclusivity within the GAA. Our own chairman Derek Kent then came on board with it, and came to us in the coaching office to see what we can do.”
Harris and his colleagues settled on the idea of a Cúl Camp for children on the Autism Spectrum because of Wexford hurling captain Matthew O’Hanlon’s role as patron of CAN, an organisation which has a membership of over 135 families.
“We said wouldn’t it be great if we could do a camp for autistic children and their siblings, and from that conversation we sat down with CAN and brought along speech and language therapists from the HSE who volunteered their time. We just said, ‘Let’s do it’.
“When we first sat down we kind of thought we’d get 40. We had to limit the bookings actually at 120, as we had so much demand. We probably could have had about 200 but we didn’t know if we could cater for that many.”
Harris said there were certain measures that had to be taken to ensure the camp was as ‘sensory friendly’ to the children’s needs.
“We were very aware that this wasn’t going to be a straightforward Cul Camp,” he said. “It was very visual. We didn’t use whistles as some kids would be sound sensitive, so we used the scoreboard clock to count down the time.
“We had colour coded groups, so all the parents and kids knew which groups they were going to. We had nine different stations going, and some of the kids felt that they really liked a particular station they’d stay a bit longer at it.”
The three days were a huge success says Harris, who was particularly taken aback by the positive feedback they received from the parents and from the organisers at CAN.
“The biggest thing was how emotional they found it, they could see their kids taking part in their county ground. They thought they’d never have the opportunity to do that. Even to hold a hurl for the first time or to kick a goal in Wexford Park was a huge thing for them.
“Another thing that came back is that they would have had siblings here. Not all the kids were on the autism spectrum, some of them would have had brothers and sisters that came along. That was part of our remit, to have the first time and the only time to take part in a Cul Camps with their siblings. That was a big thing.
“A lot of parents remarked on how a lot of kids will be going back to their schools with their Cul Camps school bags. They never would have had that opportunity before, so that was something special.”
What really set the week off was Wexford hurlers Lee Chin, Éanna Martin, Kevin Foley and Joe O’Connor calling in to get involved with the camp, bringing with them a very special friend, the Leinster Hurling Championship Bob O’Keeffe Cup.
“They probably didn’t know what to expect but they stayed longer than they probably thought they were going to,” says Harris. “They had great craic and they were really brilliant with the kids. When Lee was there he had to stand still for about an hour because they were all coming to him!"
Wexford GAA and CAN hope this camp will pave the way for more of its kind across Leinster and beyond, and that it will encompass the spirit of community and inclusion of kids with different abilities across all of the GAA.
“We have the template there now, and it’s definitely something we’d recommend doing,” says Harris. “I suppose when the template’s in place, why not? We broke the ground on it and it’s something we’d be looking to do again anyway. So why not expand on it to kids on the spectrum throughout Ireland?”