By Joe Novella Photos Yanni
As a community, we spend a lot of time following and celebrating sports heroes, the players and athletes that give us joy through their exploits. We admire their courage and determination to make it to the top, looking up to them and aspiring to be like them. But there are other types of sports heroes: ones that rarely get recognised or lauded, ones that recognise sport is not just about becoming a champion. It can also be about the act of championing.
In 2005, Wendy Munn, Jan Matea, Cheryll Peters and Kaye Davey got together to create a basketball program for Peninsula people of all abilities; a program that was desperately needed so people with special needs had a chance to participate in sport and enjoy the benefits of doing so. They did it with little fanfare and the program is still running today.
“There were programs available in the city,” said Cheryll Peters, “but nothing for Peninsula kids and young adults, and the city was too far away. So we started the program at the Somerville Recreation and Community Centre because we could see there was a need.”
From 2005, the all-abilities basketball program went from strength to strength mainly due to the selfless determination of Cheryll and Kaye to keep it going. Not even a catastrophic fire in 2016 could stop it. The program continued at the nearby Somerville Secondary College for two years until the recreation centre was rebuilt.
Today the program is co-managed by the Western Port Basketball Association (WPBA). “We just got to a point where we needed a helping hand,” said Cheryll. “We went from a few participants to 50 to 60 who turned up every week. None of us are getting any younger either, so the extra hands and back office support from the WPBA is very welcome.”
The WPBA All Abilities Basketball Program runs every Thursday night at the Somerville Recreation and Community Centre from 5pm to 6.30pm. “All ages are welcome,” said Cheryll. “We don’t turn anyone away. We have players that can run, some that can only walk, we have players with Down Syndrome and other mobility-related special needs, we have kids and adults with ADHD, others on the autism spectrum. Basically we don’t say no to anyone and we format our games so that everyone gets involved.”
The players also get to play in tournaments occasionally. “We take them up to Bendigo on a bus trip to play in a tournament,” said Kaye. “It’s a bit challenging but really worth it. Some of the kids are too scared to go out on the court when they first start with us, so to see them progress from week to week, to go on to do something like play against other teams, is really something special.”
When I asked Alex Dalton, a program participant since its inception in 2005, what he liked most about going along every Thursday night he answered, “My friends Bobby and Luke, always been with me 16 years. This makes me happy.”
“I really love to be in a team, and with my friends,” said Catherine Annable, another program participant. “And my favourite thing is shooting hoops.” Speaking to Catherine’s parents Jackie and John, they say the program is a godsend. “Catherine has low muscle tone due to her Down Syndrome so the exercise really helps with her strength and mobility,” said Jackie.
“And I can’t speak highly enough about everyone involved in running the program; they are stars and they are so generous.”
It’s true; the people involved in running the all-abilities program are volunteering their time to referee or to score or to make sure the games run smoothly. “We definitely need more volunteers,” said Cheryll, “and a few sponsors would be great as well, to help us with equipment and to grow the program so we can give more people on the Peninsula with special needs the opportunity to play and participate.”
I asked Cheryll and Kaye, both of whom have put in so much time and effort into the program, what they got out of it. “Watching the participants develop their physical and social skills is pretty special,” said Cheryll. “And being part of their lives, being invited to their 18th’s and 21st’s and other special occasions is really satisfying. But it’s the small things that really bring a tear to they eye.”
Such as, I asked. “I’ll tell you about a time when I wasn’t having such a good week,” she said with a bit of emotion creeping into her voice. “I took a moment to step back and watch what was happening on the court and I saw a boy who was deaf and another with limited speech finding a way to communicate and play ball as part of a team. It really moved me.”
Kaye’s sentiments were similar. “The players’ lives can be very challenging outside the program so seeing them come along and participate and be happy in the time they are with us is very rewarding. And what gets me the most is that they have no expectations of us but are so grateful for what we do. Knowing we, as a team, are doing something good for our players is all I need.”
Naomi Notman, part of the WPBA team, also gets great satisfaction in helping to run the all-abilities program. “I’m really proud to be providing a service that is helping so many participants,” she said. “Also, I feel happy to see the satisfaction that the participants get every week. This program only makes people smile. It truly is amazing.”
Finally, I asked Cheryll how the Peninsula community can best help ensure this much-needed program continues. “Spread the word,” she said. “And don’t be afraid.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, so I asked her to explain. “Mainstream society can be afraid of the special needs community because they’re not sure they can understand them or communicate with them but the reality is, all you need to do is have the courage to try and, trust me, you’ll find a way. My two able-bodied teenage sons were hesitant at first but once they threw themselves into being part of the program as coaches, they became part of it. They made new friends who may not be like them but are worthy of friendship just the same.”
Cheryll Peters has been awarded a Commonwealth Government Sports Award for Community Service as well as numerous other awards in recognition of her service to basketball and the community, recognition that is richly deserved. However, many involved in the program have received little to no recognition and I hope this article goes some way to changing that. So, to Cheryll, Kaye, Wendy and Jan who founded the program, and to all the staff and volunteers that have helped, or are helping to run the WPBA All Abilities Program, you are true sporting heroes.