Panathlon supports the Sport for Development Coalition’s #OpenGoal campaign – which coincides with International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (April 6th).

#OpenGoal aims to showcase how sport and physical activity can contribute to building a fairer, more sustainable and equitable future – tackling inequalities, saving public money and levelling up communities facing disadvantage, discrimination and deprivation.

For over 25 years, Panathlon has given thousands of young people with disabilities and special needs every year the opportunity to take part in competitive sport that many are so often denied. Post-lockdown, our packed programme of sporting competitions is back and bigger than ever, With the pandemic having affected SEND children disproportionately, we are proud to be making a significant contribution to ‘levelling up’ those inequalities by providing priceless opportunities that make a profound impact on participants’ physical and mental wellbeing, self-esteem, confidence and ambition.

The incredible inclusivity of our competitions was exemplified by our recent North West Regional Boccia Finals in Liverpool, where among the 87 competitors with a broad spectrum of disabilities and special needs was a team from Derian House Children’s Hospice in Bolton.

Derian House offers day care and respite services for young people with life-limiting conditions. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, young people took part in our Virtual Panathlon activities on-site with help from Debbie Davies, Disability Development Officer for Bolton Wanderers in the Community, whose role is part-funded by Panathlon.

Derian House’s team had qualified for the Panathlon North West Regional Boccia Finals in 2020 but it had to be cancelled due to Covid. Two years on, they were overjoyed to qualify for the 2022 version!

“To get back together is amazing. To see the team spirit and competitive juices flowing is fantastic,” said Derian House youth worker Melanie Lowe. “We’ve brought some young people with complex needs and they have felt included and fully able to join in the games.

“When it comes to confidence and self-worth this is absolutely fantastic. On the minibus we started off by trying to dampen down our expectations, but one of our pupils put on some loud music and as we pulled up outside, we all shouted, ‘Come on!’”

All of Derian House’s team are wheelchair users with differing conditions. Eighteen-year-old captain Enola Halleran-Clarke, who is studying Art and Design at Blackburn College, said: ““I was in isolation for almost a full year. I was stuck in my house and didn’t really see anyone at all – so you could say today is a very welcome change! Not many people talk to me in everyday life, so being here is great. I’m also very competitive – I don’t even like losing at Monopoly!”

Team-mate Anthony Townley, 16, plays wheelchair football for the Lancashire Spitfires. He added: “I have taken part in Panathlon before and it’s amazing. I get physical activity and it’s good for the mind.”

The Derian House team were able to put into practice some of the skills they had learned from engaging in Virtual Panathlon activities during the pandemic. Debbie delivered boccia, table cricket, ten-pin bowling and new-age kurling in the hospice (in compliance with Covid restrictions).

“Of all the things we did over lockdown, Panathlon was always the most attended,” said Mel. “They always asked, ‘When can we do that again?’ The best thing about it was that everybody could take part. It was accessible for young people with all kinds of different abilities.”

The same applied to pupils from Little Lever School who also qualified for the North West Boccia Regional event. Their team are all wheelchair users and also participated in Virtual Panathlon.

“Today massively boosts the independence of our wheelchair users,” commented Little Lever Assistant SENCO Victoria Coote. “We’ve got some students who wouldn’t necessarily socialise and aren’t the most confident so this is a huge challenge or them. Overcoming that barrier is massive.

“Not being able to get out to competitions was a huge hindrance for our students through lockdown. When we do participate it’s so great for their mental health, wellbeing and social skills and they get huge self-esteem from representing school. They love the competitive element.”

Panathlon Event Manager Debbie Davies said: “Kids with physical disabilities might be the only one in a wheelchair at their high school, so when they come to an event like this, it must be so lovely to see that everyone else is like them. So many of Panathlon’s benefits go beyond the actual competition.”

Just across the sports hall in the same competition was a team from Lower Darwen Primary School in Lancashire including deaf and hearing-impaired pupils.

“We find boccia is a sport which really helps them communicate,” said Head Teacher Steven Cumbo. “Some of these children may not get the opportunity to represent the school at athletics or football but Panathlon competitions fill that gap perfectly.

“We have won local and county finals to reach this stage and our children are very aware of that pathway. It definitely motivates them. Sometimes it’s actually hard keeping a lid on that enthusiasm as the standard gets higher and higher and we don’t want them to be too disappointed if they don’t win! Nonetheless, they all wear our school badge with pride.”

Panathlon Chief Operating Officer Tony Waymouth said: “It’s part of our ethos to be as inclusive as possible and find ways to ensure every child can take part. It has been wonderful to see how children from Derian House have benefited from Virtual Panathlon during the pandemic and from competing in our external competitions too. Where others see barriers, we see opportunities.”

To find out more about the Sport for Development Coalition’s #OpenGoal campaign, click here.