Council's community relations '˜slam dunk'

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has scored a slam-dunk by promoting local sport-based activities to improve community relations.

Lily and Michael from St. Brigids and from Ballykeel Primary Schools help Mid and East Antrim Borough Mayor, Councillor Audrey Wales MBE take a shot or two at the basket during PeacePlayers International-Northern Irelands innovative Basketball Twinning Programme for schools in the Ballymena area. Presseye picture by Stephen Hamilton

Through funding from the Department for Communities (DfC) – formerly the Department for Social Development – as well as financial support from The Executive Office through Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s Good Relations Programme, children from predominantly Catholic maintained schools and predominantly Protestant controlled schools in Ballymena have been exploring culture and identity - mainly through the sprt of basketball.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Mayor, Councillor Audrey Wales MBE explained: “We engaged PeacePlayers International-Northern Ireland to provide its innovative Basketball Twinning Programme to schools in the Ballymena area.”

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Cllr Wales added that over the course of the last 36 months, a curriculum developed by PeacePlayers encouraged children to ask questions about the conflict taking place around them.

“This helped them understand conflict when they encounter it face-to-face. As a result they are better prepared to promote peace in their part of the community,” the Mayor said.

Gary Boyd, Community Sports Development Officer at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, is responsible for the initiative.

He said that students from the twinned schools came to Ballymena’s Seven Towers Leisure Centre for 90-minute sessions over the course of six weeks.

“During the first session, students are introduced to their coaches and are given an overview of what they can expect during the Twinning.

“They also learn the ‘three rules of PeacePlayers’ and what will be expected from them over the weeks. Importantly, at this stage, students are placed on integrated teams and remain in these teams for the entire programme.

“Frequently this is the first time they have played sport alongside a Catholic or Protestant teammate,” he said.

During the remaining five sessions the students rotate among four ‘stations’.

Two are focused on learning the skills necessary to compete in the game of basketball. Expertise is developed in dribbling, passing and shooting as they receive guidance from highly skilled coaches.

Students learn about teambuilding at one station, and engage in the PeacePlayers community relations curriculum at another.

During this last of these stations, students discuss topics like: developing self-awareness, self-respect, and self-esteem; the meaning behind the flags and symbols prevalent in our community; the effects of treating people like objects as opposed to treating them like people; and acknowledging that people differ in what they believe is right or wrong.

There is also a visit from an officer from Mid and East Antrim Environmental Health Department, who discuss healthy eating habits.

Councillor Wales concluded: “Thanks to the current funding for the programme, children who normally wouldn’t have met, much less interacted with each other, are brought together to learn a new sport and to discuss difficult issues.

“They now have the ‘tools’ they can use to better understand and manage the conflict that affects their lives on a daily basis,” she concluded.

The project entered its final phase last month with over 1,200 children having participated and benefited from the programme.