Oola's Ball4All a shining example of inclusivity for other clubs
By John Harrington
The hugely positive impact of the All-Stars Inclusive Clubs Programme will be on full view in Mallow this Saturday when Munster GAA hold a GAA For All day at the Cork club-grounds.
Limerick club Oola will be one of those taking part in the day and are themselves a powerful example of how a well-run All-Stars programme can enrich a GAA club and its local community.
Since it started in 2021, their Oola Ball4All has gone from strength to strength and is now a beacon of inclusivity that sets a great example for other clubs to follow.
Tréasa Ryan is one of the driving forces behind Oola Ball4All and a powerful advocate for why GAA clubs should strive to provide an outlet for children with additional needs that makes them feel as much a part of the club as any other child.
Her first piece of advice for any clubs considering setting up their own All-Stars programme is to not hesitate if you have a good group of people willing to run it because both the children and the club itself will benefit hugely from the endeavour.
And her second piece of advice is to seek support from the GAA at an administrative level as well as from other clubs who have already established their own All-Stars programme.
“The first thing to do would be to look up the All-Stars programme, there's lots of information available (you can download some at the bottom of this article), and definitely speak to other clubs that are running it and get their guidelines,” Ryan told GAA.ie
“What I've learned is that most people are only too happy to help. I'd also recommend linking in with other groups in your area such as schools and youth clubs.
“You should also link in with your local Sports Partnership. Limerick Sports Partnership gave us funding for equipment which helped us greatly. The other thing we benefited from last year was AsIAm upskilling community leaders through the Late Late Toy Show fund.
“That gave our coaches great insight into how to run and deliver sessions while putting kids at the forefront of it. That was a six-week programme run by AsIAm.
“I have no problem in helping another club and I know my other coaches are the same. If someone is thinking about setting it up, don't pause, go for it. You will be opening up your gates and your hearts.
“These children are amazing. They can teach all of us a thing or two. We all have something to learn from them and they have something to give us as much as we have.
“Plus, none of us are immune to the slings and arrows of life. No-one knows whose child could be affected next. So, for the generation that are coming, rather than them not being able to bring their children to a GAA club, I would hope that in years to come all clubs will have section to cater for children with additional needs and it will just be the norm the same way as having an U-8 team is.
“The thing is, you make so many new friends. You could see one of the kids in the supermarket and you'll say hello to them and their parents will look at you and be so happy that you recognise their children. We recognise them for the beautiful children that they are, not because they have any additional needs.
“I also think another massive thing of it is that it opens the eyes of all children in a club to these children. That no-one is more special than the other, that all children are special.”
Ryan put a lot of research into developing Oola Ball4All and brought together a great team of helpers that included teachers, SNAs, and occupational therapists.
At the heart of it all was a willingness to learn from one each other with the goal of creating as inclusive an environment as they possibly could for all the children who took part.
“We all felt we had something to give but we all had something to learn too,” she says. “It has stood to us because here we are three years later and we've kept it going and we've built on it.
“We always follow the ethos of inclusion, that's at the core of it. We were very aware of children not being able to go to the pitch on a Friday evening.
“I suppose that is what hurt a little and maybe it inspired me as a mother of two able-bodied children. I imagined how hurtful it must be for parents not to be able to bring all their children to this field that is meant to be for everyone and where everyone belongs.
“There has to be a place for them in the club, and it might not be that they'll be on the pitch playing competitively, and the parents know that, but there is a place for them.
“We have a little girl and she's absolutely amazing. She's such a bright spark. And there's nothing to stop her from going on to be chairperson of our club if she wants to be in years to come.
“She's amazing and she could run our Ball4All. She's in a wheelchair and she loves our sessions but I always look at her and think, 'You have so much to give'. She will be such a valuable asset for our club in years to come.”
Every club is different and every child is different so there will never be a one size fits all prescriptive approach to an All-Stars programme.
Over time Oola have developed fortnightly sessions that feature the same sequence of station-based activities every week because there’s comfort in the familiarity of the routine for the children.
What’s most important though is the spirit they do it with, and the fact that everyone involved from coaches to children to parents all feel like they’re part of the same team and the same club.
“That's a huge satisfaction for us when we see the benefit it has for these children,” says Ryan.
“Because they come to training, they know it's their training, they know it's their team.
“A big thing for me at the beginning was that I wanted them to be able to come in and for them and their parents to see that we're a team, that we belong.
“We recently got jersies for the children and we also got the same jersies for some of the coaches’ children because some of them are in school with each other and it was very much to show that we're all part of the one team.
“The coaches got the exact same jersies too and it symbolised that we're all one.”
Oola recently ran a demonstration day in the Gaelic Grounds with the Limerick GAA Health and Wellbeing Committee where they invited other clubs from to come in the hope of inspiring them to set up their own All-Stars Programme.
Nine clubs from Limerick and Tipperary came along, and Ryan hopes that events like this and Saturday’s Munster GAA For All day will encourage more and more clubs to open their doors to children with additional needs.
“It gave the other clubs that came a great opportunity to see this is what is going on, this is what they do, and hopefully they'll go back to their clubs now and try to do something similar,” says Ryan.
“There were even people who couldn't come but got in contact to see how they could link in in future.
“I always say to people who get in touch to register an interest that we don't know it all. We don't always get it right. But we will learn by sharing.
“And you hope that we'll all have something to learn. We're always conscious of that, we're all learning, we're all sharing, and it helps to create a network of support amongst clubs.”
Ryan and her fellow Ball4All volunteers in Oola have seen how the power of inclusivity has had a profoundly positive impact on their club, and she's convinced it will do the same for every other club that opens its gates to children with additional needs.
“All any parent wants is for their child to be included,” she says.
“It must be the most hurtful thing for your child not to be included and the parents are so appreciative when you make the effort to ensure that their children are.
“You might think after a session you might have been able to do something better, but the parents will always put a message in afterwards saying today was amazing, thanks so much.
“They're just so appreciative to have their children welcome and made feel like they belong and that we see them for the beauty of what they are, not for what they can or can't do. Because they can all do something, they all have a contribution.
“I hope if other clubs are thinking about doing it that they don't hesitate. Everyone is obviously apprehensive because no-one wants to get it wrong. No-one wants to upset anyone.
“But if you can get a good foundation in place with a good core group of people that genuinely care and want this to happen then it’ll be a success. Start small and it'll blossom.”