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All Abilities Experience wins Auswide Bank Community Program Award for May

From little things big things grow.

That's certainly what Walk With Me 4 Autism co-founder Sonya Olsen is banking on after launching the innovative and inclusive All Abilities Rugby League Experience, which she hopes will become a blueprint for further programs across the nation.

The Walk With Me 4 Autism organisation is working in conjunction with Northern Districts Rugby League to provide an initial four-week competition, which kicks off north-west of Bundaberg at Gin Gin Rugby League Sportsground on July 24.

The competition, which has won the Auswide Bank Community Program Award for May, held a ‘come and try’ day on June 26 when 36 children participated with a wide range of conditions including autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and Down Syndrome.

“My future dream would be for every league in the state to run some kind of modified league program for kids with special needs,” Olsen said.

“We have always said 100 kids is our initial target and that is what we are working towards. We already have 50 registered.

“Our ultimate goal is 10 teams over five age groups."

Olsen’s son Daly, 7, is autistic and is one of the young players looking forward to the competition.

Olsen outlined the benefits the program would bring. Firstly, it would provide awareness and acceptance for players of all abilities.

“It is also giving kids a sense of belonging and providing them equal opportunities to what their peers get," she said.

“The program is looking after the wellbeing of all kids and teaching them about sportsmanship, participation and teamwork and giving kids with special needs an outdoor setting to practice fine motor skills and growth and social skills.

“They spend hours and hours in clinical therapy sessions setting their goals and by doing it outdoors in the sun benefits their health and wellbeing.”

The children taking part have all kinds of talents and for some, the program could be the catalyst for the next generation of Paralympians.

“Kickstarting our program could kickstart the adrenaline and determination in even one participant so they could go on. It may not be rugby league, it may be another sport, but they could go on and become Paralympians,” Olsen said.

Young Daly Olsen can't get enough of rugby league, as his mum attests.

“The other night he wanted to stay up and watch State of Origin. Normally I put him to bed early so I can watch it but I had a battle on my hands to get him to bed," she grinned.

“He has definitely increased his interest in football and now is sitting with me watching the game on a Sunday afternoon.

“Daly spends a lot of time indoors, but now he is wanting to get the footy in his hands and go out and play in the afternoon when he gets home from school and that is really benefitting his health and wellbeing. The changes and transformation in him have been amazing and we are making those changes in his daily he can develop that love of football further.” 

Daly Olsen was named after Maroons skipper Daly Cherry-Evans.

“I work at a school and a lot of the names I liked were of past students I had. I wanted something a little bit different. I am a Manly supporter and I didn’t know anyone else called ‘Daly’ so I kept it when he was born,” she said.

Sonya said Cherry-Evans and her son hit it off when they caught up at a Maroons fan day in Bundaberg last year.

“He blew me away with the way he continued to give our Daly his time,” she said.

Parents are also counting down to when the All Abilities competition kicks off.

“Kids with special needs require additional assistance,” Olsen said.

“We have got mentors coming so if there are any extra issues on the field the game can still flow.

“If ‘Little Johnny’ down the back is having a meltdown because things haven’t gone his way or he’s struggling with sensory issues, a mentor can step in and deal with that child and the whole team doesn’t have to stop if there are challenges.

“If kids with special needs don’t know which way to run an adult will be there to tap them on the shoulder and point them in the right direction.

“The parents are saying they can sit back on the sideline for perhaps the first time to watch their kids without having to be the ones leading, correcting behaviours or dealing with emotional meltdowns, so parents are just so excited they can come and sit back and watch.

Olsen said Walk With Me 4 Autism had raised more than $22,000 for the All Abilities Rugby League Experience via sponsorship packages raised mostly through Facebook. 

The Queensland Government has also provided $2500 towards the program.

To nominate a volunteer or club for the QRL's monthly community awards, click here.

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