Club News

Inclusion in our Clubs – St. Abban’s AC

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Athletics Ireland’s Sports Inclusion & Disability Officer Triona Shalloe recently took a trip to St. Abban’s AC in Laois to meet the Fit4Life group and see the work they are doing around inclusion in the club.

St. Abban’s Fit4Life was established in 2006 by Ben Brennan and Noeleen Condron and today is one of the strongest Fit4Life groups in the country. The programme has continued to go from strength to strength attracting new members to the club of all differing abilities and most importantly enhancing the sense of community within the tight-knit rural area. The group was set up all those years ago to encourage people to follow a healthier lifestyle by walking, running, and developing friendships through fitness and to shift from the club’s ethos which up until then had predominately just focused on the competitive aspect of the sport.

On arrival it was clear to see that this group has really achieved its goal, there is such a warmth around, which is palpable. This is the last session before the Christmas break and everyone is in great form. Adrienne Kelly explains a bit about the group before duty calls as participants start to arrive. Training takes place twice a week on Monday’s and Wednesday’s at 7.30pm, everyone works at a pace they feel comfortable with whether it is walking, jogging, or running and most importantly this is a group where everyone is welcome.

SOS Castlecomer at St. Abban’s AC

Justin, Ross, and Mickie from SOS Kilkenny arrive, along with staff member John. Residents in SOS Castlecomer, the lads have been coming to St. Abban’s for two years now, first introduced by a previous staff member but John has been the driving force for a long time.

SOS Kilkenny supports adults with intellectual disabilities and autism to develop their talents and interests, to build and maintain meaningful relationships, to enjoy opportunities for further education and employment and to feel a valuable part of their local community. It is very clear to see that these three individuals are very valuable members of the group.

After handshakes and fist pumps to all close by its time to start the session. Justin and Ross head off around the track at their own pace, while John, Mickie and I go at a slower pace. Mickie is preverbal but is very keen to show me his new mobility walker. John explains that when Mickie started with the group, he was able to participate on his own but due to a stroke during COVID he now participates with the aid of a walker.

As we make our way around the track other participants say hello, wave or stop to chat to the lads, again showing the real warmth within the group. One to stop for the chat is Noeleen who is still heavily involved in the club and a regular participant in the Fit4Life group. She explains in more detail about the atmosphere within the group having recently completed her 250th Parkrun to celebrate her 70th birthday she was delighted to be joined by members of the group on the day. More like extended family than a running group.

Cathy is next to stop and have a chat with the lads. Cathy is one of the group leaders and is a teacher who has worked in an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) unit. Cathy points out that the club have not changed any of their sessions since Justin, Ross and Mickie have started. The sessions have continued as normal, and the lads have joined in at their own pace, with no pressure from anyone. Cathy has noticed a big difference over the two years, where eye contact and engagement with other participants didn’t exist at the start, they now interact with other participants. Fitness levels have majorly increased, which John points out has led to better overall Mental Health for the lads.

After a good workout we head indoors where the group is met by Carmel who leads a stretching and balance session. Justin is a fan of this session and likes to take centre stage near Carmel. Someone jokes that Carmel could be out of a job soon. It’s the last session before the Christmas break and hot drinks and homemade cakes are provided for all participants. During this time, I get a tour of the facilities and find out a bit more about the club and what Justin, Mickie and Ross have brought to the group. Adrienne, Noeleen, Cathy, Carmel and Mary all agree that Justin, Mickie and Ross are an integral part of the group. They reiterate that they haven’t changed anything about the sessions and have allowed the lads to exercise at their own pace, it’s all been very natural. The fitness levels and social interaction have come over time. They would encourage other clubs to be open to participants of all differing abilities and to not put a timeline or pressure on individuals. As long as people are having fun and enjoying themselves that’s the most important thing.

They all agree that without John it would not be possible for the lads to come, sometimes giving of his own time to do so. It’s well past 9pm and John is still here, having official clocked off work at 8.30pm. It’s been a great evening, the lads have an early start tomorrow for social farming so they say their goodbyes, thank the ladies who will see them in the New Year when sessions resume.

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