Engage Us sports club set up at the John Wallis Academy in Ashford for young people with disabilities to become athletes

An after-school sports club that teaches young people with disabilities how to become athletes has been set up in Ashford, at the same school attended by Strictly winner Rose Ayling-Ellis.

The young people, aged between 10 and 18 who have a variety of different needs, meet at the Courtside sports hall at the John Wallis Academy every Thursday for the group called Engage Us.

The young athletes who attend the Engage Us sports club
The young athletes who attend the Engage Us sports club

It was started by parent Helen Willcox who's 15-year-old daughter Faye loves sport and has Downs Syndrome, but struggles to access clubs in the same capacity as others her age.

After speaking to Faye's teachers, the director of sport Chris Nicholas got in touch and pulled out all the stops to get a group up and running.

The first session was held at the beginning of November with just two or three pupils.

Now, six months on, up to 15 different young people from different schools across Kent look forward to coming each week.

Mrs Willcox, 46, said: "There is nothing in Ashford sports wise, at all, specifically for children who have a learning disability coupled with a physical disability.

Helen with her daughter Faye
Helen with her daughter Faye
The young people chose which sports to play each week
The young people chose which sports to play each week

"She absolutely lives for this club, it's the first thing she asks about each morning.

"Because she is in mainstream school, it is also a chance for her to meet other children who have a disability.

"There are lots of children who come here who have Downs Syndrome, she knows them, but she doesn't get to see them until she is here so it’s another friendship group for her.

"Faye went to another athletic club over two years ago in Ashford and at no notice it was stopped so when I spoke to Chris about it here, it all spiralled from there.

"A lot of the people who come here go to specialist schools and those children maybe don't get the same opportunities for sports because of the nature of their needs.

Amber playing tennis with her mum
Amber playing tennis with her mum
The club meets every Thursday from 5.30pm
The club meets every Thursday from 5.30pm

"This gives them consistency and opportunities every week that other children have a million of."

It also acts as a support group for parents by giving them an opportunity to connect with others who have to overcome similar barriers for their children.

Parent Jools Hart has even changed her working week in London so she can be in Ashford on a Thursday to take her son Morgan along.

The 55-year-old from Park Farm said: "There aren't the same opportunities out there so this club has just made his year.

"I can't tell you how happy it makes me to see him doing something that he absolutely loves.

Faye working on her balance during a training session
Faye working on her balance during a training session

"In a mainstream setting, everybody would be running rings around him, but here everybody has their battles and limits and they just get on with it."

Morgan, who is 19 and has been coming to Engage Us since day one, said: "I’m so thankful to the students and teachers who have dedicated their time to put this club together for everyone to enjoy.

"The first thing I say on a Thursday morning is I cannot wait for my club.

"My favourite sports to do when I come here are football and dodgeball."

Each week, for an hour from 5.30pm, the pupils take part in a welcoming activity, train for 15 minutes then choose which sport they would like to take part in.

Morgan Hart with his mother Jools
Morgan Hart with his mother Jools

Sixth formers from the school in Millbank Road also help to run the club as coaches alongside Mr Nicholas.

Chris Nicholas said: "This isn't a place for disabled kids to come and have fun, because they’re disabled, this is a sports club for disabled people who will be treated and coached like athletes.

"People underestimate the abilities of young athletes with disabilities so we try to offer them the best opportunities and they will interact with it to the best ability they can.

"They’re out there playing games with each other improving their social skills, their ability to follow rules and they’re getting used to training every week which is what athletes do.

The young coaches with Chris Nicholas, director of sport
The young coaches with Chris Nicholas, director of sport

"I wanted to do it because they have got nothing and when they do, it can be a diluted version or a token gesture and I didn't like to hear that.

"It is a lot of investment of time, money, facilities and people but it is worth it to make them feel empowered."

Actress Rose Ayling-Ellis who recently became the first deaf person to win Strictly Come Dancing also went to the John Wallis Academy.

When it was announced Rose would be appearing on the show, teachers who remembered the 27-year-old for her 'charm and determination' shared stories of her in assemblies which continue to inspire pupils today.

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