Skerries Harps All-Stars go from strength to strength
By John Harrington
Since being set up in January 2021, the Skerries Harps All-Stars have quickly gone from strength to strength.
A special initiative for children with additional needs in the area, it’s a registered community inclusion initiative under the PPN community groups with Fingal County Council and was launched with the support of Skerries Harps GAA and under the GAA for ALL initiative.
Established by Skerries Harps Children’s Officer, Odharnait Kieran, with help from fellow club-member Denise Emmett, the Skerries Harps All-Stars are now a beacon of inclusivity in their community.
“We have about 40 members,” Kiernan told GAA.ie. “We never put a specific age-limit on it, we just said school-going children.
“We have kids from four all the way up to 16. We never put any limits as regards ability or anything like that, so we have a real mix. We have some kids who are pre-verbal and we just provide a safe space for them.
“The whole of the club's facilities are given to the All-Stars for the duration of our time. The kids can go into the ball wall, the whole pitch is secured. Some kids would come down and literally just run around the place for the 45 minutes.
“We would have kids then who would be used to a little bit more routine who would have maybe done special Olympics and different things like that and we do different ball-skills and little obstacle courses with them.
“So we try to make sure we're catering for every single child that comes down. It's their space and it's very much child-led. It is a sports session, but some children would just like to play with the parachute for the whole time and that's fine. What's important is that they all take what they need from the session.”
The success of the Skerries All-Stars initiative isn’t just measured in the growing number of children who participate ever Friday, but also the visibly positive impact the weekly training sessions have had on those taking part.
“It's been phenomenal,” says Kiernan. “We have a couple of kids who initially wouldn't participate whatsoever.
“We had an amazing GPO, Louise Byrne, when we started out initially. She has moved on to other things but has stayed on our WhatsApp group and would still come to visit us such as when we had Santa visit the All-Stars for Christmas and different things like that.
“She commented that she can't over how some of the kids who wouldn't leave their parent's side initially or wouldn't get involved are now thriving. They're now nearly the seniors of the All-Stars.
“We also had a kid who has gone on to play mainstream sport because they had such a positive experience with the All-Stars.
“A GAA club is so daunting for a lot of kids regardless of different sensory issues or anything like that. The All-Stars gives them that soft landing into it so they can go in and familiarise with the place.
“I think it helps kids accept their differences and it educates kids about one another's differences. They're now advocates for one another when they're in school. A lot of our kids would be educated together and it's important then that they're seen in sport as well.
“For that alone it's been brilliant. It's been great for kids in the school to be able to mix with the other kids that are down. They form friendships and bonds and it's been brilliant.”
An initiative like the Skerries All-Stars wouldn’t be possible were it not for the enthusiasm of the highly qualified coaches who make the weekly sessions so enjoyable for the participants.
“We have a lot of SNAs in our mentors,” says Kiernan. “We have a couple of mentors from St. Michael's House which would be our local special school. We would have a lot of club mentors as well and then we would have a few parents as well so it's a nice mix.
“We like to get our younger Academy coaches involved as well because, to be honest with you, the kids much prefer the younger ones, they have such craic with them.
“One of our younger coaches, Aaron Rock, is brilliant. He's Dean Rock's cousin. His brother Matthew has Downs Syndrome and Matthew attends our All-Stars. Matthew’s mam, Sarah, is one of the lead mentors with myself and Denise.
“Aaron comes down without fail every single Friday and he's literally like a celebrity, the kids literally follow him around the place and absolutely love him. He plays hurling and football himself for the club and gives his time every week.
“We found that the kids tend to love the teenagers like Aaron so we have approached the local secondary school as part of their Gaisce award and hopefully we'll get some transition year students to come down on a Friday as well.”
Skerries Harps have never advertised their All-Stars initiative, instead word has quickly spread by word of mouth because it’s such a positive experience not just for those who take part, but for the parents of the participants.
“The reaction has been fabulous. We found it's great for the parents to be able to mix. It's a real community feel.
“A lot of kids unfortunately have to go out of their area for schooling and different things like that so we found its a great meeting point for parents and a great support for parents.”
The Skerries Harps All-Stars will have an open day to mark GAA National Inclusive Family Week. Anyone interested in further information on the Skerries Harps All-Stars can contact Odharnait Kiernan on 086-3719097.