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Youth rugby night has been a regular occurrence for the Autism Aspergers Friendship Society of Calgary (AAFS).
If you ask Dean Svoboda, the executive director of the Society, it’s an important part of what his group does.
“One of our founding principles is that everybody needs a community. We don’t we don’t call ourselves an organization. We don’t call ourselves an agency. We call ourselves a community,” he says.
“Everybody’s community knows you and it knows who you are and where you come from. I think that’s important for anybody’s wellbeing.”
AAFS provides respite care in a social and recreational environment for children, youth and adults on the spectrum of Autism. Building a sense of community for the people the group serves, ranging in age from as young as four-years old to 62-years old, is paramount in their development and quality of life.
So getting out on the field on Fridays for rugby is a big deal.
While the group usually works with members of the Calgary Dinos’ women’s rugby team, they had a new face join them last Friday before the Grey Cup. Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell showed up and spent time on the field with the group, enjoying a sport that shares an historical bond with the Canadian Football League.
That was just the start of a football-heavy weekend for the AAFS. The group was able to send 30 of its members and their families to last Sunday’s Grey Cup game, where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won their first Grey Cup since 1990, beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12. In total, about 160 tickets found its way to AAFS.
That was made possible by some teamwork from Shaw, who supplied the tickets to the game, and Kids Up Front; a Calgary-based outfit that works with registered partner agencies to deliver tickets to arts, culture and sporting events to deserving kids and their families.
“Every kid should have an opportunity to experience Canada’s largest sporting event in a safe and supportive environment,” said Chethan Lakshman, Vice President of External Affairs for Shaw Communications.
“We worked with our partners at Kids Up Front to give AAFS members and their families an opportunity to be a part of the Grey Cup energy and help ensure they would have a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they will never forget.”
“One of our partner agencies that we’ve been working with for a really long time is AAFS,” explains Nicky Nash, the executive director of Kids Up Front.
“They’re one of our closest partners and we decided to partner up with them for this unique opportunity with the CFL.”
Shaw also got the football rolling over Grey Cup weekend by bringing Mitchell — a Team Shaw Player — out to the rugby night. Shaw also provided jerseys and flag football equipment as keepsakes for AAFS.
Shaw has supported Kids Up Front for 20 years, with donations surpassing $225,000.00
Nash sees inclusion as one of the biggest benefits for the people that Kids Up Front has been able to help over the years.
“Inclusion and just removing barriers to access for a lot of families,” she says.
“I think a big, big thing is improving overall wellbeing and emotional wellbeing as well.”
Svoboda says that a block of tickets for AAFS families puts them at ease sometimes.
“One of the things they appreciate is we can say we have 20 tickets to a Calgary Hitmen game,” he explains, “and families know that if they go to the game with their kids and their kid bounces up and walks down the aisle or is doing something, that the families around them will understand. ‘Hey, that’s one of our families,’ type thing. That security of being able to go.”
“We all spend a lot of our lives looking for our ‘tribe,’ Svoboda says.
“I think getting to be a part of that bigger tribe is always important. It’s that community piece of what builds us, knowing that somebody else identifies with us, knowing another person that goes through what we go through.”
There’s also that overarching idea of just the power of sports and how they can reach anyone. Svoboda has been with AAFS for 15 years. His favourite memories are of the kids that knew nothing about sports and when they get involved in one, an interest is sparked and they join a team, which leads to making friends and changing that person’s life. He sees those seeds of change planted all the time in his role.
“Those are the type of things we need to build,” he says. “For me to watch those over a long time span is just priceless.”
To that end, in its ongoing relationship with Kids Up Front, Shaw has over the past two years provided tickets to Kids Up Front for Grey Cup games (starting last year in Edmonton.) Shaw also most recently supported Kids Up Front’s Newcomer Pass program, proving 50,000 newcomer families across Canada with free access to arts, culture and sporting events between 2017 and 2019.