Yes We Can! Leighton-Linslade Rotary Club presented with national award for life-changing disability sports project

Rotary club president Nick Inwards, John Cove of MK Dons, national president Debbie Hodge, Rachael Shirt FAI, and Richard Johnson.
Rotary club president Nick Inwards, John Cove of MK Dons, national president Debbie Hodge, Rachael Shirt FAI, and Richard Johnson.

Leighton-Linslade Rotary Club has proudly accepted a prestigious award for its life-changing Yes We Can disability sports project.

On Monday, May 20, 80 proud Rotarians and guests gathered to receive the Rotary Great Britain and Ireland Community Cup 2018/19, awarded in recognition of the initiative’s achievements.

Yes We Can hockey team met GB player Zoe Shipperley (middle)!

Yes We Can hockey team met GB player Zoe Shipperley (middle)!

Yes We Can was launched in September 2017 after then club president Richard Johnson noticed a “severe lack” of disabled sports provision in Leighton-Linslade, and it now provides seven different opportunities under its umbrella, including swimming, tennis, drama/dance, bowls, archery, hockey and tennis.

Richard, trustee at Leighton-Linslade Rotary Club, said: “What we’ve achieved has pretty much been nothing short of remarkable and I hope Leighton-Linslade can be a centre of excellence for disabled sport.

“What have we achieved? Well, for example, there’s a 50-year-old who plays football, who went from being very insular and having not many friends to having a whole football squad and taking part league matches.

“It’s changed people. It’s really changed people.

“We do it without government or council funding, but I must say that Leighton-Linslade Town Council has been very supportive.

“Since our launch we have also started to attract commercial sponsorship.”

National Rotary President Debbie Hodge attended to present the trophy, and a special mention was given to Dani Harding, of Mencap, and Christine Munford, president of Otters Disability Swimming for all their support.

Christine said: “I never think of my swimmers as disabled; their abilities are just different, and who knows what normal is?

“Richard originally came to see me and asked ‘how do you do what you do?’

“We sat and listed the sports in Leighton Buzzard that could be approached and went from there.

“I think it’s brilliant.

“I’m getting older, so for Yes We Can now it’s about getting a continuum, training new coaches for its future.”

Parent Andrea Hadden, whose seven-year-old son has autism and attends Linslade Tennis Club, said: “I can’t take my son to mainstream lessons, but [at Yes We Can] Bertie went from barely being able to hold a racket to doing rallies.

“He really suffers from anxiety and wouldn’t be able to go to a school club beacause he would need one-to one supervision.

“Yes We Can has been a godsend. It’s made such a difference.

“They also run the multisports days in the holidays and last summer they let Bertie’s brother Arthur join in.

“He doesn’t have special educational needs so we paid a small fee of £5, which is nothing really.

“They both really enjoyed it. They are looked after, and it’s a chance to meet parents in a similar situation, make new friends, and share stories.”

Parent, Tony Proctor, added: “I am a dad and I have two children with disabilities.

“The Yes We Can campaign has given my children and others alike the chance to be included in sports activities and provides social activities which the children would not have other than school.

“It helps them learn new skills and also helps to keep them fit through movement, otherwise they would sit indoors due to their abilities; they don’t have many friends to play with in an outside environment.

“It encourages them to explore what is possible and enjoy life.”

The aim of Yes We Can is to provide affordable and sustainable sporting opportunities to the disability community in South and West Bedfordshire, and now Richard and the team are looking at ways of casting its net to a wider audience.

A new venture in MacIntyre School, Wingrave, is actively being explored to see if MK Dons can provide sports sessions in the school, which supports children and young people with severe learning difficulties, autism and other complex needs.

Meanwhile, at Oak Bank School, Leighton Buzzard, which provides education for young people with complex social and learning difficulties, a new climbing wall has been installed.

Yes We Can is now busy developing a relationship with the school, as planning permission would be needed to use the facility outside of teaching hours.

And, of course, Yes We Can is always looking for other sports clubs who would be willing to join.

Clare Fitzboydon, chair of Leighton Buzzard Hockey Club, said: “It’s been really really good. It’s been great.

“I first sat down with Richard from the Rotary Club to talk through particularly what we could do; it was very new for our coaches and we felt a little bit nervous.

“First of all we went and watched the Yes We Can Football at MK Dons which was helpful and reassured us.

“We looked at the details and thought - let’s have a go!”

Clare and her team looked at some of the work the hockey club already did with the junior section and broke it down - meaning it was a learning experience for the coaches as well as their keen Yes We Can players.

The new students have picked up the skills quickly and one young woman is now playing competitive games with an adult group on Saturdays.

Clare said: “It’s taught us to really embrace inclusivity and our members are fantastic.

“We held a game for our juniors and Yes We Can group and mixed the teams.

“I hope other clubs can look at what we’re offering and reach out.”

Richard would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has been involved in Yes We Can, from the rotary club and the community who donate at its events to Leighton Buzzard Mencap, Yes We Can’s seven sports partners, and its sponsors.

He said: “I want to mention in particular FAI Autos of Grovebury Road who have committed to sponsoring the football team for three years, and Osborne, Morris and Morgan who are funding our multisports days in the summer holidays.

“We also receive support from Tesco, Waitrose and other foundations.”

Rachael Shirt, FAI Autos’s communications coordinator who has managed the sponsorship relationship, said: “Having the opportunity to be involved in such an incredible initiative is truly wonderful; the dedication and unbridled passion Leighton-Linslade Rotary Club and The Buzzards demonstrate in everything they do is positively inspirational.”

Paul Lockhart, practice manager at Osborne Morris and Morgan, said: “It is both a pleasure and an honour to sponsor the Leighton Linslade’s ‘Yes We Can’ sports initiative.

“The Rotary Club achieve fantastic things within our local community, and by partnering up with MK Dons SET they are making a real difference to the lives of children, young people and adults that would otherwise have never been possible.”

However, the interviewees, of course, also gave special thanks to Richard.

Andrea added: “Richard and his wife Sandra - I can’t praise them enough. They come and watch, talk to the parents and they have such a passion for the children.

“It’s not about them just setting something up. They really care and that comes across.

“I would say to parents definitely give it a try. Some people hear ‘disabled’ sports and think it just means physical disability, but its a disability group for everybody, whether its physical or whether a child has autism, aspergers - it’s for children in a special needs setting.”

Anyone who wishes to either take part in disability sport or assist the Rotary Club and its current partners in delivering disability sport, should contact the Rotary Club via its Facebook page or website, or call Richard on 01525 211484.