Game Changers: a very special netball team

Game Changers is a recently-formed netball team for special needs.

An east Auckland teacher has started a netball team for special needs children.

Kelly Simpson has been teaching for eight years. She used to work at Sommerville School in Panmure and now teaches at Chapel Downs Primary.

Simpson, who used to work with special needs students, told the Times that the idea for forming a sports team came from conversations with her class at Sommerville School.

“They wanted to start a sport outside of school. I’ve played netball most of my life so it was a natural progression.”

The team, dubbed Game Changers, meets twice a week – on Thursday for practice and Saturday for their weekly game. It has recently expanded to include kids outside the school.

“We have adapted the game rules to suit the team so managing time on court and players moving positions can get complicated,” Simpson says.

“We rely on our amazing on-court helpers Adele Adams and Anel Kieser, our manager Yumiko Suzuki and our empire Natasha Reynolds to help our game run smoothly and we are so lucky to have them.”

Simpson says that her favourite part of the team is seeing the kids have the confidence to get out and play, a thought echoed by the parents.

Rachel Price’s daughter Eden, 14, plays for the side. “It has given her something to do every Saturday,” Price says. “Eden absolutely loves it.”

One side benefit Eden has gained from the team, Price says, is an increase in her fitness. “We were away recently,” Price says, “and for the first time we were able to go for walks as a family.”

Additionally, Eden has formed great friendships with other kids on Game Changers. “They all have a lovely rapport,” Price says.

Adele Carran says her daughter Sammy, 13, has had a similar experience. “She absolutely loves it,” Carran says. “She has something to look forward to throughout the week.”

Being a part of a team has helped Sammy socially. “She’s learnt to put the team’s needs before her own.”

It’s also boosted her confidence as it’s pushed her out of her comfort zone, Price says, a factor that their coach Simpson has noticed as well.

“My favourite part of the team is seeing the kids have their confidence to get out and play,” Simpson says.

Sammy, like Eden, has bonded and forged relationships within the close-knit squad.

Tracey Elder’s daughter Hannah, 13, has always held an interest in sports. “She loves netball and basketball,” Elder says.

Being a part of a netball team has strengthened her friendships with kids outside her own school. “She loves going to the practices,” Elder says.

Carran told the Times that that there is a “definite lack of special needs teams in sports”.

“There are things like the Paralympics,” Carran says. “But a lot of our kids don’t always fit the criteria.”

Elder says that there are opportunities such as the Special Olympics for special needs children. “It’s not as mainstream,” she says. “For Hannah it’s more her being able to go down to the court and play alongside all the other schools in Howick. She would not get that opportunity at the Special Olympics.”

“(Special Olympics) is wonderful, but you don’t really see as many children going to play alongside their peers in Saturday sports.”

Price says there are “a fair few things around” but what’s lovely about Game Changers is it “takes the kids outside of just the disability world”.

“The kids play against regular teams. There’s not very many spaces where people with disabilities step into the mainstream world. It’s quite unique in that way. That’s part of the magic of it.”

The opportunity extends to those who don’t often meet people with disabilities as well. “You can tell the change in the opposition,” Price says. “At first they’re a bit unsure about what this is about. By the end they embrace it fully.”

“(Game Changers) is just not about our children,” Carran says. “It’s a benefit to society and the community for the opposition players because this might be their first experience with meeting people with disabilities.

Carran says that “watching the barriers neurotypical kids and our special needs kids just falls away with sport. Seeing the opposition’s care and friendship and seeing their skills with playing with our kids have just been remarkable.”

Because of Covid-19, Game Changers have missed their last two games and don’t get to play again until next year. “We are hoping to play during the summer league season to keep our team together,” Simpson says.