A whole year can have a significant impact on anyone. But what is the impact of a year’s worth of programming with PeacePlayers Northern Ireland? To answer this question, we turned to Sam, a 15-year-old boy from east Belfast who joined PeacePlayers Northern Ireland a little over a year ago.
Sam and his mum, Rachael, learned about PeacePlayers from the mum of Sam’s teammate from the Queens Basketball club. A few years later, during COVID-19 stay-at-home ordinances, Sam took the opportunity to finally try out PeacePlayers. When Sam joined PeacePlayers Northern Ireland, they were already deep into virtual programming. Sam joined a week long virtual Basketball Camp hosted by PeacePlayers Northern Ireland, the Virtual Interface Games that were held a week later, and then went on to participate in PeacePlayers Northern Ireland’s Virtual Summer League –all in the space of one month.
Around the same time that Sam joined, PeacePlayers was experiencing some unfortunate changes due to the pandemic. In what was supposed to be the first time 100 youth from all five PeacePlayers sites around the world came together for the in-person Friendship Games (founded by Ed and Penelope Peskowitz) in the Middle East, instead youth were confined to their homes. While this was very disappointingfor all involved, Sam saw the Virtual Friendship Games that sprouted up instead as an opportunity.
For a participant like Sam to come in with only three weeks experience and apply for such an all encompassing programme like the Friendship Games is uncommon. To do so as a person with Autistic Spectrum Disorder is impressive, to say the least. Bright lights, strong smells, sounds and crowds can all have an adverse impact on Sam. “At first glance he does not present as ‘typically’ neurodivergent… I’m often told ‘he doesn’t look Autistic’, or ‘it must be very mild’. Sam looks like Sam. He happens to be Autistic. His diagnosis is not mild at all. Sam expends huge energy facilitating the societal expectations of others… Some contact is exhausting, trust is difficult to establish without consistency, changes of plan and unexpected turns of events can prove very challenging and bring anxiety -even positive events!” said Rachael.
Joanne Fitzpatrick, PeacePlayers Northern Ireland’s Core Programming and Curriculum Specialist, has also been working closely with the Northern Ireland Friendship Games youth. She noted how Sam has handled the challenge, “He
gets so excited about getting something across and then frustrated. What I’ve noticed where he would have been really uncomfortable with that in the start, I think he’s become more comfortable with the group, and he trusts them a bit more. He owns it and rides it out and sees it through, or says ‘give me a minute and i’ll get right back you’…”
Although meeting new people and entering new social groups can sometimes be difficult for Sam, he, along with three others, was instrumental in helping to initiate more opportunities to connect with his Northern Ireland Friendship Games peers. On his involvement in organizing these sessions, Sam says, “I felt that in a situation where I had limited contact with others I was eager to prove I was a valuable member of the team. I wanted to establish myself, I would say I was very welcome, but a part of being in a group is making an effort to show this contribution that I’m making and this is how I can improve the environment. Not just toprove to the coaches but also my peers.” Which is why Rachael is so delighted to see how Sam has responded so positively to the opportunities presented to him by PeacePlayers. Sam continues “As I said, the [PeacePlayers] sessions were fantastic, but I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to enjoy that kind of conversation… it made more sense to me to have more sessions. As well as wanting more contact, I wanted a different kind of contact. I wanted a relaxed setting. This was somewhere where you don’t have coaches and you’re entirely in contact with your peers…. It’s the kind of fun where you aren’t trying to progress and develop your skill, you’re more focused on developing your relationships.”
Sam feels those weekly virtual sessions with the Friendship Games coaches and peers, plus the additional ‘relaxed’ sessions really helped him with the transition to local in-person programming once COVID infection numbers started to drop. “I had thoroughly enjoyed the [virtual] sessions and how they were spaced out butI felt that would be enough. And then I went to an in-person event and had a fantastic time and thought ‘imagine every week being able to meet up with these people and playing in-person games!’”, says Sam. He continues, “Hopefully in the same way that those weekly sessions virtually set me up for in-person sessions that were more imposing but more enjoyable, those international sessions [Virtual Friendship Games Cultural Twinnings] that were virtual will set me up for an in-person session, hopefully, maybe in a year.”
Sam is excited about the opportunity to join the in-person Friendship Games
next year in the Middle East, yet he keeps it all in perspective. “I had said to Joanne, ‘Although going to the Middle East is fantastic, going to Israel isn’t the entire purpose. It wasn’t really [about] the end, it was the journey as well.’”
Reflecting on nearly a year with PeacePlayers, Rachael believes, “PeacePlayers gives him opportunities to share his thoughts and feelings in an open and respectful space, while teaching him skills for navigating the reality of the differing views of others.” Joanne supports this sentiment and goes further, “Because of how much of a thinker he is and how he’s now comfortable enough with other people to challenge them, he takes usin a direction we would never go in because we [PeacePlayers Northern Ireland] are comfortable with going with the ‘status quo’, he’s a great refreshing mind that challenges it and changes it.”