How the Wauchope RSL sub-Branch launched a sport program
We caught up with Jess Leonard, Army veteran and welfare and compensation advocate at Wauchope sub-Branch. She shares the challenges of starting a sport and recreation initiative and the satisfaction of working up a sweat with other vets and their families.
Working towards change
I’ve been interested in veteran wellbeing for a long time. After I was medically discharged in 2014, we moved to Tasmania where I ran a veterans support group on Facebook. I did some advocacy training when we moved to Albury-Wodonga and then in 2019 we moved again to Wauchope and I went to the local RSL sub-Branch to see how I might be able to help. The timing was good as the current welfare and compensation advocate was leaving, and there was no one yet to replace him. That’s how I came to this role. And I still have a day job working in veteran advocacy too.
There are a lot of younger veterans in the area but it’s still a challenge to get them to sign up to membership of the sub-Branch. It’s an issue that comes up in every meeting we have. The old view that the RSL is just for drinking and playing pokies persists, but we are working hard to correct that misconception – the RSL sub-Branch and RSL NSW are not-for-profit, focused on veteran wellbeing, and don’t profit from clubs or poker machines – and give younger vets and their families good reasons to participate in the sub-Branch.
Many veterans come through the sub-Branch to deal with welfare and compensation issues, and I see an opportunity to build on that and make the sub-Branch welcoming to the larger veteran community, not just to those who are members.
Fun Mondays kicks off
I first came up with the Fun Mondays sport and recreation idea thanks to a similar program in Launceston that did gym sessions, games and sport once a week. But there was nothing like that in Albury-Wodonga or here in Wauchope and it seemed like a great way to promote a more up-to-date image of the sub-Branch and what it can offer, and of connecting veterans and their families in a positive way.
I brainstormed the idea and figured out what equipment we would need and how much it would cost. I knew there was some concern from members about insurance issues around physical activities so I reached out to the local exercise physio here in Wauchope. The boss there is a veteran himself and was more than happy to work out something so we could have a physio attend our sessions.
Then I approached the members at a sub-Branch meeting with all the costs and my plan, and we got started.
It’s been a slow start with only two of us in the first two or three sessions – COVID certainly didn’t help. But we now have six or seven people who show up regularly plus others who drop by.
We play some volleyball and basketball, cricket at the nets down at the local oval, and practise ball drills and soccer. We’re looking at adding tennis to the mix and our walks are becoming popular too.
But none of it is too competitive. It’s really about connecting socially in a fun, easy way and having a bit of a workout while you’re at it.
We usually work up a sweat but no one has to be sporty or super fit to come and have a go. And injuries or disabilities are no barrier either – we will do things that work for everyone.
It’s not a set activity every week – we usually get together and see what we’re all in the mood for.
Volleyball is a favourite of the current group and we’re getting better at our ‘around the world basketball’ skills! It used to take us forever just to get a couple of hoops but everyone is really improving.
Spreading the message
I try to get the word out at the sub-Branch meetings and on social media. We do a bit of local radio advertising but we only get that for a couple of weeks before it gets taken over by another event. A couple of people heard about it a few weeks ago when the RSL NSW Sport and Recreation Program was announced. They turned up to have a go.
I’d like to get some posters up too that really get the message across that you don’t have to be a sportsperson to participate – it really is for anyone. We’re not playing 80 minutes of competitive soccer! We’re just getting together to have some fun, stay active and connect with each other. And you can bring your partners or kids along too. My son comes along in the holidays and one of the other veterans brings his grandkids. It’s totally family-friendly and a great opportunity for kids to have a run around too.
It’s so important to offer accessible ways for veterans and their families to connect with like-minded people, to spend some time outside and just to get out of their own heads a bit. It’s critical for mental health to have those opportunities for down time and easy catch ups and we always go home feeling better for having done it.
Time restraints can make it a challenge – especially for a lot of the younger veterans who work. So I’m really hoping we can work toward getting an afternoon slot and some regular weekend events going – maybe trivia or card game nights – so more people can come along.
And I’d love to get to the point where we could challenge other ex-service organisations to a game of bowls or basketball or a trivia competition. That would be a lot of fun and a great way to open up to the wider veteran community.
Keen for a kick, a run around or a quiet stroll with fellow veterans? Join your local RSL sub-Branch – if they don’t have a sports activities already, Jess’s how-to will help you get them started.