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Squad goals: PNG family's sports and social success

Family posing for a photo.
PNG's sport-loving Ila family.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

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They aren't as famous as the Chappell brothers or the Williams sisters, but the Ilas of Papua New Guinea rank as one of the great sporting families of the world. Remarkably, they rose to success through sport for development programs and are now using sport to aid at-risk youth.

As the sun sets over Lae in PNG's Morobe province, the Ilas are bantering, laughing and appealing their way through a game of backyard cricket. Tropical jungle surrounds their immaculate home, mountains soaring to the north and south.

This doesn't look or feel like an elite sports development facility or social support institution, and yet it is both these things.

Family playing a cricket match.
Sport is part of every aspect of Ila family life.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Dad, Ken, is bowling. As well as being a handy cricketer, he was once a top-class Australian rules footballer and is the president of Australian Football League Lae.

National cricket squad member Daniella is at the crease. Older brother Jonathan is in his wheelchair at leg slip, fresh from completing his Level 1 AFL coaching exam just days before.

Younger sister Nerela crouches at midwicket. She's about to resume a serious tilt at making the national cricket side after completing her high school studies. Good judges say it's only a matter of time before she gets the call up.

There's another daughter living in Australia who is a regular member of the PNG national netball side.

Family playing a cricket match.
The Ilas can assemble an impressive family cricket team.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Go back a generation and there is even more sporting glory on both sides of the family. Mum, Josephine, a former netball international, is protecting the side of the house at short cover and eight-year-old Kerri-Anne is taking cover behind Mum.

"She follows everybody around," Ken says of the baby of the family.

“Whether it's AFL, netball, cricket or softball. She's still trying to work out where she wants to be."

"Softball," Kerri-Anne says, politely correcting Dad and apparently feeling no pressure to follow in the footsteps of her stellar siblings.

Apart from playing a variety of sports at the elite level, the Ilas are also officials, administrators and founders of three sports clubs.

The Friends Cricket Club, Friends Netball Club and Sa'lle Dogs AFL Club were all born from a sense of social justice and sporting entrepreneurship in the family. Australian Aid-supported sport for development programs assist their efforts.

Close-up portrait of a man holding an AFL football.
Ken is convinced sport can solve a range of social problems.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"For us it is more about the people, not just the game," Ken says of the family's motivation.

"We use the game to bring these people in. Where we can assist in their lives, we do.

"We learn from them, they learn from us and we progress together in life."

- Ken Ila

The Ila's clubs are open to all-comers, but have sought out those at the margins of PNG society.

"That's why we actually formed the teams, so we could bring in the ones that really wanted to play but couldn't get game time," Josephine says.

"It was pretty much those that were left out from other clubs, that didn't have a spot on the team and were just sitting on the side."

A group of people stretching.
The Ilas have created clubs so that everyone can play sport.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

In a place where employment and even educational opportunities can be scarce, sport can be a life-saving safety net.

"A lot of them could end up behind bars," Ken admits. "Many turn to criminal activities, drugs, alcohol."

"There are social issues here but we try to use sport to help people stay away from all of that and it works. It changes their perspective on life and that's a good thing."

- Ken Ila

As the sun sets, the cold cordial comes out and the post-match chatter begins.

They could be any other sport-loving family in the world except this close-knit family with a grand sporting and social vision has sporting siblings spread right across Lae, and their city is a better place thanks to the humble but highly-effective Ilas.

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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