Paul O’Connell: Sport allows children and parents to connect, to make friends

Paul O’Connell: Sport allows children and parents to connect, to make friends

Paul O’Connell just has to think about how he feels when he hasn’t eaten for a while to get a sense of the great work Barnardos does for children and families nationwide.

The Ireland and Munster rugby legend is championing Barnardos Big Active, a school-based initiative that helps students of all ages and abilities focus on their health and wellbeing while helping others.

Involved with the children’s charity for about 15 years, after its former CEO Fergus Finlay invited him to visit a Barnardos centre, O’Connell has always been “blown away” by its work.

“Imagine a child coming from a difficult background arriving at school without breakfast, no dinner the night before, and no lunch in his bag.

“The breakfast club feeds these children breakfast and gives them a lunch going off [to school].”

Recalling his own childhood in Limerick, O’Connell says: “I had a really nice childhood — two parents at home, breakfast in the morning, out the door to school, help with homework, brought to training in whatever sport we wanted, a lovely dinner, then a story and a kiss goodnight. You’re lucky if that’s your childhood — a lot don’t have it. Some parents didn’t have a good experience from childhood on how to parent.

“Barnardos tries to fill those gaps, to help children have a better life and parents do a better job. For example, for a lot of children, their home environment isn’t suitable for doing homework, so Barnardos has homework clubs.”

Now in its third year, Barnardos Big Active promotes a range of activities based on the body, mind and heart:

  • Body — physical challenges that take care of the body and have knock-on benefits for mental health;
  • Mind — mindfulness exercises to support positive mental health and wellbeing;
  • And heart — promoting the importance of charity by helping others around you.

Pointing out that Barnardos “sends out journals and classes that teachers can do on mindfulness and coping mechanisms”, O’Connell says: “I’ve been involved in professional rugby for over 2src years.

“I couldn’t imagine players not having a sports psychologist to talk to, to give them coping m

…. to be continued
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