I love sport. I love watching it, I love watching films about it (Cool Runnings, Rocky, Raging
Bull…….), I love playing it, I love analysing it and I love talking about it. I particularly LOVE Scottish football (Aberdeen FC, Off the Ball and Andy Robertson). I have sacrificed a lot of time and energy on sport and I have stayed up very late and have woken up very early because of it. I was incredibly blessed to experience some great highs (and some lows) during my swimming career but to witness over 80 disabled children participating in a range of sports at the Sierra Leone National Stadium really was a most joyful, beautiful and unexpected experience.
Before I moved here, Enable the Children hosted a football event with support from the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA). This was a huge success and it further highlighted sports ability to break barriers. It was also an opportunity to witness a double amputee score a penalty. However, this was just the beginning and it really did fill me with excitement to be part of it.
Organising the sports day was quite the challenge for the team. The plan was to invite 120 children to participate in handball, football, basketball, table tennis and athletics, with the SLFA, the Ministry of Sport, the Sierra Leone Paralympic committee and Special Olympic committee providing the coaches. Officially we had the stadium from 9-11am, but time here is a flexible thing, so we had it a lot longer! Logistically there were a few things that needed to be planned for. Giving out invitations was hard, posting a letter in Sierra Leone involves delivering it yourself by hand to an address which sometimes involves the direction ‘go to the lady who sells fruit and ask for a certain Aunty and they will show you’.
Likewise, phoning families to remind them of the event was made trickier by the constant changing of phone numbers and SIM cards. Also, I am pretty sure no one uses email here. Other challenges were how do we keep a large group of excited children injury free and in one place, how do we construct basketball hoops from wood, who will take children to the toilet, how do we get these families to the stadium on time, what would we do if it rained, the list actually went on and on. Luckily, the Enable the Children team have great experience putting on big events (their beach outing in February has over 2,000 guests) and this event was on a smaller scale to that.
All the challenges were forgotten as soon as the event started. I remember being ever so happy that we were only 15 minutes late in starting. When the sports began that happiness turned to joy, which remained all day! Watching children, who had only just met and some had never played a sport before, playing and passing to each other, really was special. The parents screaming on the sidelines as the kids had running races or competed at handball was at fever pitch. The celebrations when a little 8 year old scored 3 baskets were loud and wild. The sight of a girl who could hardly walk being able to stride out down the track when she had been given the freedom to run is a vivid memory that will stay with me. I was fortunate that I could move around different groups and different sports throughout the event; meaning I got to witness a fair selection of joy filled moments. I also know that for every moment I witnessed there were probably 10 or 20, if not more, of these little nuggets of delight going on elsewhere in the stadium
This is not a comprehensive list but here is a list of things I find beautiful:
James McFadden’s goal against France
Finn Russell’s pass against England
Billy Dodds hair when he played for Aberdeen
Scotland in the snow
Jessica Rabbit’s entrance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Me in a kilt?
I realise there is a slight Scottish bias in this list but I don’t care. After the sports day there was definitely a new addition to the list and it didn’t need to be Scottish.
To witness the way that the coaches interacted with the kids really was beautiful. I know that coaches and athletes develop a special bond through working together but this was different. This was coaches giving their time, energy and love to kids they had never met before, kids that maybe weren’t naturals at the sport they were coaching, kids who are used to being told what they can’t do rather than being allowed to figure out what they can do. These coaches gave the children encouragement to try new things and the opportunity to flourish. As you can probably tell I loved it and really do think it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen (definitely a whole load better than me in a kilt!)
I have been here for 2 months and I keep on being surprised. I really should learn to expect the unexpected but I think that requires more brain power than I have! With all the potential things that could have gone wrong with the sports day it really was amazing that it went smoothly. This is down to Anna, Rob, the ETC staff, the volunteers, the coaches, all the ministry staff and God. Everyday that I have been here there has been at least once (almost every time I get in or on a motor vehicle) that I think it is only by the grace of God that I am still here.
The unexpected joy and beauty of the day really was such an encouragement. The work is hard but the sports day highlighted the potential each child has and focussed my mind on the long term nature of physio. It will not be a quick fix for the majority of our disabled children, it will be a lengthy and ongoing process. It will require patience and courage from not just the parents but all the family and even the neighbours. From what I’ve experienced so far there will be times when parents want to give up with the exercises and if the thought of their child running or playing football in the national stadium can be used for encouragement then that is brilliant.
Finally, we hope to host regular sports events with dreams of creating Paralympians, playing disabled football matches during half-time of senior matches, and hosting Special Olympic events in a packed out stadium. These are bold visions but as a team we have the energy for it, a heart for it and a trust in God that it can happen.
Thanks for reading, much love and God bless x