'Sars Stars' show the power of inclusion
By John Harrington
Today is GAA National Inclusive Fitness Day where clubs all around the country make an extra effort to promote promote sport and physical activity to everyone in their community regardless of age, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, nationality, or fitness level.
The GAA’s mission statement is, ‘Where We All Belong’, and it’s important that every unit of the organisation lives up to that ideal.
Lucan Sarsfields in Dublin have certainly done that through the establishment of their ‘Sars Stars’ GAA for All training sessions for children with additional needs.
Unfortunately now on a temporary hiatus due to Covid 19, ‘Sars Stars’ was an instant success when it was established in April 2018.
“Everybody thought that it was one of the best things that we've done in the club really,” says Lucan Sarsfields Healthy Club Officer, Audrey Kane.
“To see these kids coming out every week and giving them the opportunity to play and really feel a part of the club was lovely to see.
“Many of these kids would have brothers and sisters in the club so it was great for them to also have training just like their siblings.
“For their parents too it was great to be able to sit back and relax and watch the kids getting out and training together.
“I know some of the parents were saying their kids really progressed in terms of socialising and participating as the weeks went on.
“So it was really very positive. It was one thing that everybody in the club that everyone would comment on, that it was great to see the club embark on such an initiative and that everybody had a chance to come up and participate.
“It really made those kids feel like they were part of the club and they weren't just coming up to watch their brothers and sisters or other kids playing.
“They were each given a ‘Sars Stars’ team jersey and training. It wasn't just that someone had bought them something to wear, they were actually wearing their team colours because they are club players now too, and I think that meant a lot to them.”
‘Sars Stars’ was established by club-members Jo Mahon, Colette Condon, Triona Leonard, and club Games Promotion Officer, David Moran.
Working with young children with a variety of additional needs such as Downs Syndrome, autism, and physical disability, it created a safe and fun environment in which to play Gaelic Games ever Tuesday evening.
“It was great to see the positive impact that it had,” Triona Leonard told GAA.ie
“We had one child who his mother had said was non-verbal when he was outside of the home. While he would talk to his mother, Dad, and siblings, he didn't communicate at all with anybody else.
“We had seen since he started with us that we were getting a few words out of him, but just before Covid kicked in we were getting sentences out of him, we were getting conversations out of him.
“He became very relaxed and very happy to be in our company to chat and connect with us, which was brilliant. His mum was astounded, she thought it was great that he would feel that comfortable in the environment we'd created that he'd have that conversation.”
It wasn’t just the young children who took part in ‘Sars Stars who benefited from the experience.
The club recruited young coaches from within the club who helped out with the programme as part of their Transition Year in school, and they gained an awful lot from their involvement too.
“For some of them it really opened their eyes,” says Leonard. “I know two of the girls who helped us last year wanted to help again this year and have been asking when we might be able to get training back again.
“Even though they're no longer in Transition Year they got so much out of it that they want to help. The boys who were in Transition Year who helped us out when we first started also stayed longer and the only reason they stopped was because they had their Leaving Cert to prepare for and didn't have the time.
“We've been very lucky with the Transition Year students we've had and I think they've enjoyed it as well because they got great craic out of the kids.
“It works both ways. The kids are obviously gaining a lot from the experience but so are the teenagers and adults. Everyone involved is gaining something.”
Considering how much everyone benefited from their involvement in ‘Sars Stars’, it’s a real shame that the GAA for All programme is currently on hold due to Covid 19.
Leonard is looking forward to the day when they will be able to bring the children back together again for their weekly training sessions.
“Most definitely. We've kept in touch with the odd message asking them if they're all okay and letting them know that we haven't forgotten about them and that we'll be back together as soon as it's safe to do so.
“The plan is as soon as we're allowed we'll definitely be back up and running because it's something that's of benefit to the kids and their parents.
“My husband Joe met one of the Dads of one of the children in the supermarket a few weeks ago and he said every Tuesday his son still says 'GAA, GAA'. He knows he's meant to be playing his GAA with Sars Stars on a Tuesday.
“While we have thought about ways of getting them back, we have to be very conscious that the majority of them would have underlying health issues so we can't bring them back too soon until we know it's safe to do so for the foreseeable future anyway.”
Having seen first hand the positive impact ‘Sars Stars’ has had within her own club, Leonard is a strong advocate for other clubs putting in place a GAA For All programme for children in their area with additional needs.
“I would definitely encourage other clubs to do this if they have the people and the facilities to make it possible, absolutely,” she says.
“Most clubs would have families in their area with children with some kind of additional needs who could really benefit from an outlet like this.
“For us it's 45 minutes a week. And you can see the joy in the kids because they keep coming back and are clearly happy to keep coming back.
“I would definitely encourage other clubs to try something similar because it's so worthwhile.”