Volunteers nurture female equity and inclusive sports opportunities for children of all abilities

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
For many Australian children, the bulk of their sporting education happens away from the school yard as part of community club teams run by volunteers who share their time and knowledge.

Volunteering Australia’s 2023 Sport Volunteer of the Year Award Winner Elysa Oliveri says she was originally motivated to help coach children at an all-abilities cricket club, Blowfly Cricket Club, because of a desire to “do more”.

As well as involvement as a coach with her younger brother’s cricket team, her passion for encouraging young children to play sport led to the introduction of a four-week pilot program that was successfully run at Asquith Primary School, and she has also been actively involved in fundraising activity to raise awareness around all-abilities sports.

“I’ve always had an interest in getting involved in cricket coaching, and after seeing one of my coaches helping out with a Blowfly Cricket session before my training, it inspired me to get involved – especially after seeing the kids running around and enjoying playing cricket,” she told EducationDaily.

“What also motivated me was after participating in an exhibition match against my club (Northern District) and the NSW Blind Cricket Team. Before that game, I had no idea that this team existed, so it pushed me to become a volunteer to advocate and allow for more exposure to all-abilities cricket. I have also learnt a lot from all my previous coaches from the years, and I want to be able to pass on what I have learnt to the grassroots and upcoming cricketers.”

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Ms Oliveri says “it’s important to volunteer as, in sport, volunteers do all the behind the scenes work and help run clubs – so without volunteers, you wouldn’t be able to play cricket, or any sport in general”.

“Volunteers are the coaches, the scorers, the team managers, the presidents, the canteen or BBQ helpers, or even the umpires, in some cases. All of these together allow for a club to function and to run. So, it is important to volunteer if you want to play sports, or if you want your team out on the field to play. Volunteering, in not just a sporting perspective, is also important, as volunteering provides support and help to individuals who need it most,” she says.

Elysa Oliveri volunteers with young people through Cricket Australia and says community sport could not exist without the volunteers who give their time each week.

Becoming one of the first female coaches at her cricket club was something Ms Oliveri describes as “very special”.

“Hopefully, I can influence many other females to get involved in a coaching position, even if they are a parent and their daughter is playing in a team,” she told EducationDaily.

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“It is also special, as it gives the girls in my club someone to look up to and see that there are many positions available for them to get involved in cricket other than being a player.”

With few females coaching in cricket, Ms Oliveri says, the gender imbalance “can make us feel small, different or even isolated in what we are doing”.

“I’ve, luckily, worked with various great coaches and groups of people so I haven’t had to face many challenges, however, I can understand that some may feel what I have stated before, and be pushed away from what they are doing because they are not being heard, their ideas are being disregarded and are lacking support because others know better or pre-existing beliefs that cricket is a male sport.”

Because of all those factors, she believes mentoring girls and young women into sport is a positive pursuit that can help create confidence to “push past these barriers and make them understand that they should continue to do what they do – and be able to lead change and create a trend in more females getting positions in cricket and/or sporting clubs”. 

Supporting inclusivity in junior sport is, Ms Oliveri says, “so important, as it allows for everyone to get involved”.

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“Today’s world is very diverse, so, in the case of sports, we should be able to cater for every individual to be able to play sports in a suitable and safe way that supports the range of different needs, to allow for every individual to thrive and, most importantly, be given a chance to play and get involved,” she told EducationDaily.

“There are also many benefits to the young people that I work with to encourage them into sport, which include gaining new skills and experiences, creating new opportunities, making new networks within sport, and even creating new friends and connections.”

“For people considering volunteer work, I say just do it, say ‘yes’,” says Ms Oliveri.

“Get involved, you don’t know where it could lead to. You can help so many people, and while doing so, you gain so many personal benefits for yourself.”

Community sports volunteers provide essential sports inclusion and education

“Volunteers are critical to community sports across Australia, including kids’ sports,” Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce told EducationDaily.

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“Sport and recreation organisations engage the largest number of volunteers in Australia – over 1.6 million in 2022. According to the AusPlay survey, 92 per cent of non-playing roles such as coach, official, administrator, or team manager, are undertaken by volunteers. It also found that 3.4 million children aged 0-14 years participate in organised sport. Given their dominance in non-playing roles, volunteers are essential to this sector. Community sport could not remain operational without volunteers,”

National Volunteer Week 2024, says Mr Pearce, is recognising the diverse passions and talents everyone brings to the act of volunteering with the theme Something for Everyone.

“It’s an invitation to explore myriad opportunities available, emphasising that there’s a place for everyone in the world of volunteering,” he told EducationDaily.

“We are encouraging people to find volunteering opportunities that could interest them. Go to govolunteer.com.au or visit the Volunteering Australia website to connect and find an opportunity for you.”

Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce says schools and other educational organisations can play a key role in facilitating positive volunteering experiences and fostering a long-term interest in volunteering.

Water safety education helps keep Australian children safe

When Jennifer Kenny first joined a local surf club, she says it was because “all our friends belonged and I was a good swimmer and felt it was a good fit”.

“In the decades since that first involvement, her countless hours of voluntary contribution to Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) have included time as a patrolling member, a competitor, an administrator, a board member, an official (now at a very senior level), a first aid and resuscitation trainer and assessor, a National writer, advisor, as well as a mentor and assessor.

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Today, Ms Kenny says, “I continue to find different roles that I can take on and enjoy”.

“Our society relies on volunteers of all kinds to support all the different facets of life that we love. If we don’t have volunteers our beaches aren’t patrolled, our kids can’t play sport, our old people would not get meals, people would not be able to get to appointments….you name it, Australia has a volunteer who does it,” she told EducationDaily.

“It makes you feel like a contributor to the lifestyle we love.”

She plays a major part in the education and development of Surf Sports Officials and is a past winner of the Surf Life Saving NSW Surf Sports Official of the Year and the SLSA Surf Sports Official of the Year.

But, awards aside, Ms Kenny says “fun, enjoyment and meeting fantastic friends” have been a lifelong benefit of sharing her time with an organisation she loves.

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“Without volunteers, SLSA would struggle,” Ms Kenny told EducationDaily.

“It has so many members volunteering in so many ways. It would not be able to do 90 per c or more of its activities, particularly patrols and competition.

Passionate advocate for female equity and leadership opportunities

Being a trailblazing woman in what was historically a male-centric organisation had its challenges, with Ms Kenny saying that, in the past, women were utilised in supporting roles only, including making lunches and afternoon teas for the men.

“And along we came needing women’s change rooms, women’s events in competition, women’s clothing, rules to do with pregnancy and breast feeding. We came and showed we were good at what we did and were prepared to work hard to be the best,” she says of competing in club competitions side-by-side with men.

“The mindset in the organisation was that women members would be good for the organisation but on the ground that was not what always happened – and in some clubs and areas of lifesaving we are still fighting for equal opportunities,” she told EducationDaily.

“In my club in Tasmania, we were encouraged to take on every challenge and were expected to do well and so we did and that really helped. Many of my male friends and my husband, in particular, supported me to take on leadership roles that had been previously only held by men and that was a challenge because many men and women at that time had very different leadership styles. But with support from many people, I have been fortunate enough to work at a senior level in many areas and am still doing so.

The fact that there is still more work to do to include true equity for Australian women is an important reason acting as a mentor for other competitors and volunteers is so important to Ms Kenny.

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“I look around and there are many fantastic talented women in our organisation but for all sorts of reasons, often related to family, they are not always able to take up all the opportunities available to them. We need to mentor them and change the ways we do things to ensure that they can find their path in lifesaving and achieve what they want to achieve.”

Her message to prospective volunteers is to “go for it!”.

“Take the opportunities available to you that interest you because you never know where you will end up,” Ms Kenny told EducationDaily.

“It might be hard at times, but you will have a fantastic time, meet new people, have fun and give back to our community.”

Jennifer Kenny is quick to point out she is just one of a huge team of volunteers across Australia who support surf lifesaving education for young people.
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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live