By Shaun Casey
THE GAA is for everybody, and Crossmaglen have joined the growing list of clubs that offer a weekly GAA For All programme to children, of all ages, with special needs.
During her time in Australia, Crossmaglen native Sarah Cairns built up the experience of helping those with additional needs and on her return to Ireland, decided to combine that knowledge and understanding with her love of GAA and form a GAA For All programme in Crossmaglen.
With the help of St Peter’s GAA club in Warrenpoint, who had already started their own weekly inclusion session, Cairns brought the idea to Crossmaglen in March, and it has blossomed ever since.
“I’ve worked in special needs through teaching and over in Australia there was always different things on, and I would have been helping out at the weekends,” said Cairns, who is a member of the Crossmaglen ladies’ team. “When I came home, I thought that I would like to do something like that here.
“One of the parents has two children, and one of them has special needs. She said she would have always loved to drop him off to football training as well and I just thought that would be such a great thing to start, a GAA For All.
“The same parent sent me the Warrenpoint GAA For All information – they had started doing one. She sent me this video of Justin McNulty as well and he was in parliament talking about it, he had been up to the Warrenpoint one.
“So, I went up to Warrenpoint and got to see what it was like and that was it really, it just took off from there. There’s about 30 children that go to Warrenpoint and Declan, who started it there, has a son that goes.
“I think it was around the end of March when we started it up and I’d like it to continue throughout the whole year if we can, even if it’s just something different whenever the winter months come in and it’s too cold to be out on the pitch every week.”
Now, 18 children in total come to the Rangers club on a Saturday morning to get a taste of Gaelic games, whether it be on the football field or in the local hall located in the grounds of the club, weather permitting. But it’s not just for Crossmaglen people, everyone is welcome.
“Our numbers vary every week especially during the summer with people going away on holidays and stuff like that. But I would say if we counted them all up together there would probably be about 18 now because we have a few new faces that have joined recently.
“It’s for people of all ages too and we have coaches and participants helping out as well. I just asked a few of the boys and a few of the girls around the club would they help out and they do whenever they can.
“Because we have so many that help out now, we can swap in and out and people can come when it best suits them. And they love it too. The coaches and everyone who helps out really love and enjoy being a part of it.
“It’s not just people from Crossmaglen either, it’s for the wider community and for anyone that wants to join. We have new members coming every week. It doesn’t matter where they’re from or what club they’re from, everyone is welcome.”
The GAA organised a trip to Croke Park recently and Cairns, a local schoolteacher, insisted the day out on Jones’ Road has been one of the highlights of the year.
“That really was a highlight, just seeing them all out on the field and enjoying it. Justin McNulty was there and there was a lot of really competitive matches going on too with older children and one of our children was playing for Derry and they were in a really competitive match.
“I think it was the younger ones from Derry that played against us, and it was just so much fun for them. It was a GAA For All event in Croke Park, we had a slot along with the Cúl Camps and all.
“We got to go on a tour of Croke Park as well which was an absolutely amazing experience. They got to run out onto the field, they got to go in and see the changing rooms and go up the steps of the Hogan Stand as well, up to the presentation area.
“It was class, it really was. It was one of those things where you probably don’t realise until you get home how great it was. Some of those children might never get the chance to kick a ball in a competitive environment.
“Even for us, the adults. Sure, when are we ever going to play in Croke Park? Some of the parents weren’t supposed to be on the field but they made sure to come down and they were all kicking points as well once they got the chance, so it was a great day and a great experience for everyone involved.”
Now that the winter months are just around the corner and the weather may not be just as friendly for outdoor activities, Cairns and her helpers are planning different events to keep the GAA For All going all year long.
“Even when we went on the journey to Croke Park, the craic with the children on the bus on the way down was brilliant. A lot of them had to make their own way too, but we could maybe do different trips over the next few months when the weather isn’t as good.
“Declan, from the Warrenpoint club, is going to come up in a couple of weeks and play against us for something a wee bit different
“The Croke Park day out was good for the publicity of it, and it might get other clubs looking into it as well because that was an all-Ulster day I think, the day we went down.”
The Crossmaglen u-12 ladies team recently took part in a session with the children from the GAA For All, who have had their own unique jerseys designed as well. Again, the weather played its part, but the two groups bonded together well.
“That was a disaster because it was inside, but our u-12 girls gave our GAA For All participants wristbands with different quotes on them which was really cute. In a few weeks I’m going to organise a few of the other teams, even the senior team, to come up or any other team because anyone that does come up loves it.
“There were different ones complimenting us for the jerseys up in Croke Park. We were just looking at different colours and we wanted the jerseys to be neutral and not for any certain team.”
It’s all about creating awareness and inclusion in the community and further afield that the GAA is for everybody, and Cairns has noticed the improvement around her own club since the GAA For All programme began.
“I think sometimes people can be a bit wary and don’t know what to do but when they get there, they really enjoy it. Even a lot of the coaches in our club, I know a lot of them had never worked with special needs children before and it warms my heart seeing how comfortable they are now.
“The first day we started a lot of them were wary, but they just love it now. I think it’s good for people to get involved because everyone should be more involved in the community, including special needs children and adults, and local people should know and be aware of it.”