Sport's a life changer for many troubled Indigenous youth, says 2017 Indian Summer Games coach
2017 New Brunswick Indian Summer Games welcome about 1,200 participants from 12 communities
For Cathy Ward playing volleyball started as a way out of what could have turned into a troubled life.
"Being involved in sport has saved me from going down the wrong path," said the volleyball coach from Metepenagiag, a First Nation near Miramichi.
Ward watched her community's U-19 girls compete at the 2017 New Brunswick Indian Summer Games Tuesday.
Like her, many of the young players find support in participating in the sport, which helps much more than just their physical well-being, she said.
Ward said she used to be a troubled teenager on the reserve, until her coach approached her about starting a volleyball team.
I think of some of these young girls, just like myself growing up, you need support and sport is important, to have an outlet.- Cathy Ward, volleyball coach
Today, she works as a public servant with the federal government in Ottawa, while coaching both middle and high school teams back home in Metepenagiag.
"I think of some of these young girls, just like myself growing up, you need support and sport is important, to have an outlet," she said.
"And so now, I've been trying to return the same favour, and do the same thing by creating volleyball teams where they didn't exist before."
Being a role model
Part of her team also participated with Team NB in the Indigenous Games two weeks ago, she said.
Ward said the team follows a strict no drugs and no alcohol policy.
Some players had to leave in the past when they didn't follow the rules. But those who stayed, and worked hard, have come a long way, she said.
One of her youngest players, 13-year-old Lana Larry Dedam, initially joined the U-19 team to fill an empty seat.
But Dedam said that playing with the older girls pushed her out of her comfort zone and helped her make new friends.
Kids will look up to you and hope to be like you and that will get them into volleyball or any other sport.- Lana Larry Dedam, volleyball player
And it made her a role model for other children in Metepenagiag, where volleyball is a popular sport that often brings the whole community together, she said.
"Kids will look up to you and hope to be like you and that will get them into volleyball or any other sport," Dedam said.
Challenges of coaching
Ward said training Indigenous children comes with challenges that other coaches may never have to deal with.
"When I'm coaching at a high school, I don't have to worry about transportation, or if the girls are going to be fed, or if they'll have money to buy food," she said.
"With my other teams, even here, we have to worry about those things. Those things need to be at the forefront. Do the girls even have sneakers? Do they have clean socks?"
But the sport is also a game changer for many children, said Ward.
While it's not always easy to recruit, the lessons the children she can attract to the sport learn stay with them for life, she said.
"It's all about honesty, just being the best person you can be in a team environment," she said.
"I think at this important part of the time of their life, I think making the right choice was key and I'm thankful that they did."
The 2017 New Brunswick Indian Summer Games welcomed about 1,200 participants from 12 communities across the province this year.
The annual event invites Indigenous youth ages five to 19 to participate in a variety of sports, including athletics, lacrosse, rugby, T-ball and archery.
The games kicked off last week with a track and field day, and will run until Friday, Aug. 11.
With files from Catherine Harrop