UFV students lead community boccia club for physically-disabled athletes
UFV Kinesiology students are creating an opportunity for youth with physical disabilities to be active and social through the Chilliwack Junior Boccia Program.
The club was launched three years ago by UFV faculty members Karen Natho and Alison Pritchard Orr. When Natho moved to the Fraser Valley in 2020, she wanted to continue the para sport development work she did in Ontario and find a way to engage UFV Kinesiology students.
“We started the program in 2021, right in the middle of COVID,” Natho says. “Boccia can be an individual sport, you can run it with one player or 16 players, and I knew we’d get at least one. We ended up with four athletes right away.”
Boccia is very similar to bocce. In both sports, a small ball called a jack is thrown (or rolled) onto the playing surface and competitors then try to toss balls as close as possible to the jack. While bocce is usually played outdoors, boccia is played inside and it’s modified to be played in a seated position. Adaptations include softer leather balls and a ramp that players can roll a ball down if they can’t throw it. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It’s an accuracy target game like darts, which requires patience that I don’t always have,” Natho laughs. “I’m not very proficient at it, but it is a lot of fun.”
Boccia has become a major paralympic sport, with elite athletes competing nationally and internationally. Boccia Canada gave the UFV program a startup grant to encourage growth at the grassroots level. SportAbility, which oversees boccia in BC, supported the club by providing equipment.
Natho is a big believer in providing as many para sports opportunities as possible, when she came to Chilliwack, she found the local landscape lacking. There’s wheelchair basketball, but not everyone can play.
“Some people are not able to propel themselves efficiently in a sport wheelchair due to the level of their disability,” Natho says. “With boccia, there are ways to engage athletes regardless of their ability, age, or experience. The youngest we’ve had was in Grade 4 and the oldest was two years past high school graduation.”
The program’s first meetings were held in the atrium at the UFV Chilliwack campus. It’s since moved to nearby GW Graham Secondary.
“The majority of our participants are from the Chilliwack School District, so they generously offered us the space and support” Natho says.
Since its inception, the Chilliwack program has had a student leader running the show. In the first two years it was Gurneesh Purba and now it’s Audrey Tan. She is supported by six dedicated UFV Kinesiology student volunteers who appreciate the experiential education opportunity. This year’s group includes a first-year Kinesiology student mixing with third and fourth years who also appreciate being part of a vibrant team atmosphere.
“Not only do I hope the program has enriched the athletes’ lives, but it has been a great source of inspiration for me that the power of sport transcends boundaries,” says third-year Kinesiology student Shawn Arora.
“This program has made me realize how strong kids can be, even in hard situations,” adds fourth-year Kinesiology student Jessica Fennell. “This has inspired me to push through tough situations because if they can do it, I know that I can too.”
Athletes and students wear team shirts, and everyone does a team cheer at the end of the session. Many times, boccia games will be watched by family members supporting their athletes. At one recent session parents took on their kids, creating a particularly special experience.
“The dad of one of the athletes was right into it. It was exciting to watch,” Natho says. “For our UFV students, I really try to impress upon them that they are not only learning but making a difference, and part of a team.”
Natho watches the Tuesday afternoon sessions and sees happy athletes and happy UFV students. She says many of the students have never worked with someone with a disability and they are learning a lot about what it means to be a professional in Kinesiology.
The students agree.
“This has been a great experiential learning opportunity,” Arora says. “It has allowed me to take the education from the classroom and apply it to a real-world environment while practicing the skills of leadership, compassion and inclusivity.”
Long term, Natho hopes to grow the program with more athletes, provide opportunities for them to compete at higher levels and more experiential education for UFV students.
“I’d like every athlete to know there’s opportunity beyond recreational play, and if they want to pursue that we’re here to help,” she says. “We’ll support them, because everyone deserves to have the chance to play at the level they want to play at.”
In the meantime, the program is always looking for athletes and you can get more info by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting sportability.bc.ca/chilliwack-jr-boccia.