GAA's community focus standing tall in troubling times

By Orla BannonBBC Sport NI
Pitch closed sign
All of the GAA's sporting activity has been stopped the the coronavirus crisis

The GAA may be Ireland's largest sporting organisation but it is unrivalled in its ability to be so small.

'Everything we do helps enrich the communities we serve' is one of its stated core values and it seems apt in troubled times because when it comes to reaching out and helping those in need, the GAA comes into its own.

Counties' social media accounts are now peppered with skills challenges for young people and warnings to stay indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic - the same as lots of sports are doing - but the GAA grassroots network goes deeper.

Members mobilise themselves to get out there and 'do'. It is not an online shopping outlet and it doesn't employ a fleet of delivery drivers but the GAA has something even better than that - the club volunteer.

They won't get lost bringing groceries or need google maps to deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people in the community, because they know who those people are before they ever ask for help.

Club Health and Wellbeing Committees across the country have gone into overdrive, and people are trying to come up with meaningful ways to offer support in a crisis.

Chris Collins, Derry games and development officer

"I'm one of 15 full-time coaches employed by Derry GAA who are all young and reasonably mobile, so we have put a network in place to help connect local businesses with the vulnerable people who need their services.

"Over the last two weeks we have started 'Frontline Friday' where we deliver goods and prescriptions to those who are self-isolating, vulnerable or just can't get out.

"My wife Aileen is a pharmacist and the pharmacies are just flat out, that is where the idea came.

"Our coaches are normally in schools and well used to being on the road, so it's a good way for us to help out. It's proving very popular.

Social distancing is being advised everywhere while all sports have been badly hit by the outbreak

"I think the crux of it is that GAA people are all volunteers in some capacity, whether it's in coaching at your club, lining the pitch, whatever. People just rally round. It's a cliché but the GAA is a family and it comes together in times like this.

"I do think though that we need to come up with more creative ways to engage our young people. They are used to going one hundred mile an hour and now they're sitting in the house.

"We need to keep an eye on them because while they may not be affected by the virus directly, they are seeing huge changes to their daily lives."

Selena Doran, former Liatroim camogie player (Down)

"My father asked me if I had a face mask at home and they are so scarce now it really got me thinking.

"I did some research and put a post out to my followers that I was going to make masks and the response was incredible. I had 70 calls alone that night.

"I am a milliner by trade, but with so many weddings being cancelled, people are not buying hats.

"People said I should sell the masks as I am basically out of work, but that's not me. How could you make a profit out of helping people?

"I am hoping to make 300 more by the weekend and I just leave them at the top of my lane so people can pick them up. I might try to set up an online tutorial to show people how to make them because I can't cope with the demand. The more people how to make them, the more people we can help."

Liam Cunningham, Killyclogher chairman (Tyrone)

"We had a drive-thru food bank where people dropped off groceries without getting out of the car. There was no talking. I carried the food inside, we divided thing up into parcels and then St Vincent de Paul came, filled the van and took it away.

"There are a lot of people with needs.

"It is all voluntary donations. People are very willing and gracious and not just members of the club who are involved, it's just people who live in the community and want to help out. In fact they said if we are doing it again they'd be willing to contribute again."

Food bank at GAA club
Clubs across Ireland have been donating and collecting food

Ulster Council secretary Brian McAvoy is proud of the creative ways clubs and counties have come up with to look after their own.

However it is clear a more formal, structured arrangement may be needed soon.

"No-one knows better than the clubs how to look after people in their own areas," says McAvoy, a former civil servant.

"You would have to applaud everyone. This is the community aspect of the GAA working at its best.

"As a body we are working with other sports and the governments about a structured approach.

"On the ground we will help stem the tide but when things get critical, we are in discussions about how we can help.

"There are enough buildings in the cities and big towns but if testing centres, for example, are needed in rural areas, that's where we can play a big part."

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