Written by Alan Johnson, for TecTorque Summer 2013
The Blackwoods Indigenous Academy is designed to engage, reward and inspire young Indigenous footballers and netballers to become leaders in their communities, schools or local sporting clubs.
Kangaroo's star forward Lindsay Thomas is heavily involved in the Academy. The three-day Academy is attracting young people who are interested in growing and developing their unique individual skills. During the AFL season tens of thousands of supporters pour through the turnstiles at Etihad Stadium to watch the Kangaroos play on the football field. While most in the crowd know, often in very fine detail, the actions of the players and the club on the field, very few would know about one of the most exciting programs the club is involved with off the field.
The Blackwoods Indigenous Academy, which runs in partnership with AFL Victoria and the Melbourne Vixens, is designed to engage, reward and inspire young Indigenous footballers and netballers to become leaders in their communities, schools or local sporting clubs. Open to Indigenous boys and girls aged 11-14 years, the three-day Academy is attracting young people who are interested in growing and developing their unique individual skills.
Dr. Sonja Hood, General Manager - the Huddle, North Melbourne Football Club, says in the short time the Academy has been running the feedback from the attendees and the community has been fantastic.
"The Academy has only been running since 2010/11, but I can see it will continue to grow."
She said the format has changed quite a bit since inception, but has retained the same goals.
"We wanted to do something for the Indigenous kids."
Dr. Hood explained that the Academy started as part of our Huddle program, a community footprint at the club which gets the local community together and develops key programs for under-privileged and migrant children.
"The Academy was born out of there," Dr. Hood told TecTorque.
"When it first started it was mainly just for boys and they just played football mostly. Following talks with the Indigenous community, we expanded the program to include girls, with netball and basketball, this year. At the moment it just runs once a year, but as it develops we would like to run it more often," Dr. Hood said.
She explained that this year the Academy had 65 participants across AFL and netball with 35 boys and 30 girls.
"They come from all over Victoria, with most of them from South West Victoria."
Dr. Flood said she was surprised to learn that some of the children had never been to Melbourne, with some never been away from home before.
The goal of the Academy, Dr. Flood said, is to reward and inspire young Indigenous people, particularly footballers and netballers; giving them both on and off field opportunities and skills.
"The Academy used some novel approaches to give participants new experiences, challenging them to draw on their skills in new ways and develop leadership capabilities, awareness of nutrition, goal setting and egagement of others in the community. For example, this year we took some of the attendees ice-skating. It was the first time most of them had seen ice. At first they didn't want to try it, but two hours later they were whizzing around the rink, having a great time. It showed them that if they try something, more often than not they can achieve it, which is great for their confidence in other areas."
"The Academy gives them the building blocks to set them up for the rest of their lives, and shows them they can do almost anything they want, if they set their mind to it. We want to give these kids the skill sets required to go back to their communities, their schools, their clubs and be influential within their communities. We want to show them they have to commit to things, to their education, and to whatever they are doing in their community or at their football club. We want to give them a sense of taking control of their own destiny and not just rely on others," she said.
Dr. Flood explained that as well as attending North Melbourne and Melbourne Vixens games, the young Indigenous footballers and netballers receive mentoring and coaching from the Kangaroo's star forward Lindsay Thomas and the Vixen's Geva Mentor as well as attending sessions on culture, community, nutrition and goal setting.
She said that not only has Thomas had a great season on the field, he has also made a difference off it by mentoring these young Indigenous boys and girls.
"The Academy is a really great way for young Indigenous kids to work on lots of different things, not just their footy skills," Thomas said.
"We focus a lot on the importance of good character, commitment to school and education and the importance of leadership. Talking to these kids and acting as a bit of a mentor to them has also given me confidence, as I want to help make a difference in their journey," he said.
Thomas, who played a pivotal part in developing the program, says it has been incredibly rewarding to see what some of the past participants have achieved since being involved.
"Some kids need encouraging with their footy and sport. They can lose interest, get distracted or get a bit discouraged but through this program we've seen kids go on and get more involved in their local footy clubs and find that self-belief again which I know for me is really important," Thomas said.
When North Melbourne lost to Adelaide by one-point, back in June, there was a field full of broken-hearted players in blue and white, but one player looks back on that game with fond memories.
It was particularly special to Thomas because it was the Indigenous round and coincided with official launch of the Blackwoods Indigenous Academy.
"It's a round where I gave my all. I played to represent my family, my friends. "It's definitely a very important round, not just for the AFL boys, but to all Indigenous people in Australia," Thomas said. Just to see the Aboriginal flag in the middle of the MCG or Etihad, or wherever, it just brings a smile to every Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander's face. It just makes them feel really special, and really proud to be an Aboriginal," he said.
Over 250 Indigenous children and their families were part of the Blackwoods Indigenous Academy launch at the game.
While Thomas booted five goals, it was ultimately his pride in his culture that brought about the biggest sense of achievement.
"I knew before the game that they were going to form that guard of honour but to actually see them standing on Etihad and to see the smiles on their faces...you can never take that away. It was an unbelievable scene. I'm in a fortunate position where I can help these young kids succeed in life, and all they're asking for is an opportunity and that's what I'm here for. I'm a very proud Aboriginal man and very proud of my background and my culture. If I can change any of these kids' lives, that will put a smile on my face and that's all the reward I can get," Thomas said. The small forward has come a long way from the shy South Australian who arrived at the Kangaroos back in 2006. I'm really just like a big brother to these kids. Someone that they can talk to, ask for some advice and all that kind of stuff," Thomas said. It's something I'm really proud of and to see it so successful this year...seeing the smiles on the kids' faces, that's so rewarding for me. It's incredible the feedback we get from the parents, some of them travel as far as Shepparton and other country towns hours out of Melbourne to bring their kids to our program."
Thomas credits his involvement at the community level for his improved confidence on the field.
"Working with the kids in the academy has helped me grow so much as well. I feel I have a responsibility to be a strong role model for them and it keeps me focused on the bigger picture," Thomas added.
"Hopefully over the next couple of years we can make the academy even bigger and stronger," he said.
Thomas says he loves being a part of the program because it helps him develop his own leadership skills and confidence.
Dr. Flood explained that Thomas was very shy when he first arrived at the club.
"But I watched him over the course of the Academy, and what a difference. He has absolutely blossomed into an unbelievable ambassador."
Dr. Flood said Thomas has been heavily involved with the program, getting involved as much as possible.
"He was here every day taking a real interest with the kids. And not just for the sake of it; there is a real passion there when he interacts with the kids. And they idolise him, but he gets as much out of it as them, seeing the development of the kids. Like Thomas, most of the kids were very quiet when they arrived, but after a couple of days they would open up, communicating with each other and the Academy leaders, and having fun. It was a really good three-day camp.
"Going forward, judging by the feedback we got from the kids, the Academy will only grow. We would like to offer these opportunities to as many kids as possible, and would like to get to a point where we can attract hundreds of Indigenous kids to the program. When they get back to their communities, we want them to keep it going, to integrate what they have learnt into their communities.
"It's not just the case of coming here and kicking a footie around for a couple of days, then that's it," Dr. Flood said.
Barry Hoare, Group Sponsorship & Communications Manager at Wesfarmers Industrial & Safety (Blackwoods), said he and the company are thrilled to be involved in helping encourage, reward and inspire young Indigenous people.
"We are delighted to have the Indigenous Academy feature the Blackwoods brand name, as we are that Geva Mentor, Lindsay Thomas and others have agreed to provide leadership and guidance to those selected to participate, as we look forward to supporting the program and attendees longer term," Hoare said.
"For Blackwoods, understanding, sharing and building relationships and creating opportunities is an important part of our Reconciliation Action Plan, and the Blackwoods NMFC Indigenous Academy provides a fantastic opportunity to build on our successful program and engage our own team in a project they can relate to," Hoare said.