As Vanuatu assembles its first para-athletics team to compete on home soil in the upcoming Pacific Mini Games, an Australian volunteer has been instrumental in supporting the athletes on their journey and changing attitudes about disability in the Pacific nation.
In Port Vila’s late afternoon light, two pioneers are preparing to change the face of sport in Vanuatu.
Ellie Enock and Morris Kerry are training to compete in the upcoming Pacific Mini Games which will be hosted in Vanuatu next month.
This will be the first time the Mini Games has included para-sports (athletics and table tennis).
Supporting them on their journey to the Mini Games is Australian volunteer Jessica Richardson.
She is nearing the end of a nine-month stint as Disability Inclusion Officer at the Vanuatu Association of Sports and National Olympic Committee (VASANOC). Her role is facilitated through the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program to help sporting organisations in Vanuatu improve inclusiveness and accessibility in their programs.
While Jessica has been working with every sport in Vanuatu to assess and broaden the way they cater for participants with disabilities, assisting the para-athletics team prepare for the upcoming Mini Games has been a major focus.
She explains: "I’m doing a lot of work to make sure our athletes will be ready for the Games. It’s the first time that para-sports will be involved in the Pacific Mini Games, so this is a great opportunity to let the wider public know that people with disability can participate in sport and be champions in sport, just like anybody else."
Over the past few months, Jessica has been securing equipment, facilitating training sessions, and organising for para-athletes to attend training camps in Vanuatu and Australia. She has also been working to prepare athletes mentally to compete on the international stage. To ensure that Team Vanuatu and other para-athletes have access to appropriate facilities and services at next month’s event, Jessica has also provided disability inclusion training to Mini Games staff.
Ellie and Morris have enjoyed a rapid introduction to shotput and javelin over the past four months with Jessica by their side at most training sessions, which are overseen by coach Denny Kalenga.
Jessica notes down results as Ellie practises shotput, and as Morris gets to grips with shotput and javelin. She also keeps Ellie’s two daughters company while their mother trains.
Ellie lost her left leg in a vehicle accident at the age of 20, while Morris suffered a disabling injury to his right ankle after a surgical procedure as a 3-year-old.
"Ellie and Morris are inspiring role models and, thanks to the media coverage that they have had in Vanuatu, we are already seeing children with disabilities asking how they can get involved with para-sports," Jessica enthuses.
"It has been great to see the increase in community support of these athletes as part of Team Vanuatu, and we’ve also seen a considerable change in the attitude of other national sports federations in recognising these para-athletes as dedicated and successful members of Team Vanuatu."
Jessica has competed at both state and national levels in Australian rowing, and could not resist the opportunity to help out with that too while volunteering in Port Vila by assisting the Vanuatu Rowing Club. She now coaches a youth squad comprising girls with and without disabilities, with the aim of helping some of them to qualify for next year’s Youth Olympic Games in Argentina.
But, for now, the Pacific Mini Games (which begin on 4 December) are everyone’s focus, and Jessica believes Vanuatu could surprise a few of the more established para-athletics teams.
"We are looking strong, with some medal contenders emerging out of a recent training camp on the Gold Coast," she reveals. "The Australian coaches there were stunned with their results, which would have earned them top 5 world rankings should they perform like that in the Mini Games.
"When the Games begin and media coverage is seen by an even wider section of the community in Vanuatu, I believe the positive change in attitude towards athletes with disabilities will only continue."
This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
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