“Help others achieve their dreams, and you will achieve yours.” Les Brown
Inside the historic grounds of the former Gladesville Hospital lies the organisation which has employed in excess of 20 young Eels players over the last four years.
This employer is not a corporate giant. It’s not even a flourishing Australian enterprise.
Giant Steps is a school for children and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As a registered charity they charge no fees for their quality programs which extend far beyond the traditional curriculum.
On our recent visit to the school, The Cumberland Throw caught up with Eels Jersey Flegg and SG Ball players Charbel Tasipale, Valance Harris, Tui Afualo and TJ Masima as they arrived for work just after 7am. With Parramatta’s age teams scheduling training for late afternoons, it’s an early start to the day with an employer who provides flexibility of hours for these part time footballers.
We were then welcomed into the grounds by Eels trainee Well-being and Education Mentor, Steve Dresler. Steve, a talented prop who played SG Ball and Jersey Flegg with Parramatta, has been working at Giant Steps for four years. He was part of the first group to work at the school after the relationship was instigated by Matt Francis and Dean Feeney from the Eels, and he’s passionate about the programs and experiences delivered by the school.
As our host for the morning, Steve took us for a walk around the grounds, including the playground constructed by a working bee of 30 Parramatta NYC players a couple of years ago. TCT then sat down with Steve and Giant Steps National Director of Student and Psychological Services, Helen Appleton, to discuss the school and the group of teacher’s aides affectionately known as the “Parra Boys”.
In a comprehensive interview, Helen outlined the challenges faced by young people with ASD. It is a neurobiological disorder which primarily impacts a person’s communication skills, particularly social communication, as well as producing restricted and repetitive behaviours and/or interests. (Audio of our interview with Helen can be found linked at the conclusion of this post.)
For the students at the school, such impacts are profound. Around half of those enrolled are non-verbal. Communication folders are required for their interactions.
Being on the spectrum presents life-long challenges for the person and their family.
Helen also detailed the programs provided by the school, the partnerships with parents and the greater community, the value of the “Parra boys” and how the school community pulls together to meet the annual financial demands.
High quality, engaging educational programs are the priority for Giant Steps, and they’ve formed strong bonds with their community. But a rich curriculum supplemented with vocational experiences, therapies, recreation, leisure, health, fitness and community access, requires not inconsiderable financial resources.
Per-annum, the cost per student is $90K. With an enrolment of 82 Early Learning and K-12 students, plus 23 in the attached post education college, this is a significant figure. Incredibly, Giant Steps does not charge any fees, and with only 45% of their costs covered by the government, the balance must be made up by fund raising and donations. More on how you can help later.
When it comes to the “Parra boys”, the students at the school respond well to working with young males who are sometimes close to their own age. It’s almost like working alongside peers for some of the older students.
These bonds go both ways. It’s not uncommon for “Parra boys” no longer working at Giant Steps to continue to visit or to arrange recreational trips to places like the football, the beach or Kicks Bowling. The school has become a bigger part of their life than they would ever have imagined.
A harsh reality of employing talented footballers is that they can be lost when elevated to NRL full-time training. Just last year the school had to say goodbye to seven players who had earned such a call up. The positive side to that is that more young men are then able to experience the Giant Steps community.
Talking to the players today, it would seem that they gain more than just a job at Giant Steps.
We grabbed a quick word with Charbel Tasipale inside a classroom. He described his employment as a “rewarding experience which helps me to appreciate what I have in my life”.
TJ Masima was helping to supervise the arrival of students via special taxis just before 9am. Similarly, he expressed that “working with the students, and seeing what brings them joy, is a reality check for what’s important to me.”
Leaving Giant Steps today, I couldn’t help but reflect on the impact this school is having on both the future of the Eels and on the wider community.
The students are provided with programs that maximise their learning potential and enrich their lives, preparing them for life after school.
For the Eels, the leadership, decision making and service to others experienced at Giant Steps isn’t ust producing quality members of a football squad, it creates maturity and a mindset that values helping other people.
Consider this list of impressive “alumni”.
Ray Stone, Reed Mahoney, and Oregon Kaufusi all debuted in first grade for the Eels in 2018. Dylan Brown is about to be named for round 1. Stefano Utoikamanu and Salesi Fainga’a are training in the full time squad. Each player has worked at the Giant Steps school.
Along with Steve Dresler, there are currently eight Eels Jersey Flegg and SG Ball players at the school. Tui Afualo, Valance Harris, Joe Taipari, Tyler Tuigamala, Tasi James, Charbel Tasipale, T J Masima, and Lachie Poko are all adding to the Parramatta legacy at Giant Steps.
The list of players to have previously worked at the centre also includes Filia Utoikamanu, Michael Tupou, Dean Matterson, Austin Dias, Kurt Deluis, Tui Oloapu and Sean Keppie.
For the final word, I asked Bernie Gurr about the Eels relationship with Giant Steps.
“As a development club, we have a mandate that extends beyond just producing footballers. It’s about providing young people with the education, experiences and opportunities to contribute to the community. We are proud of the Eels’ relationship with Giant Steps, and the work that the Parra boys do there. And to be perfectly honest, the young players are the real beneficiaries from their time at the school.”
The Cumberland Throw would like to encourage corporate organisations and individuals to support the tremendous work of Giant Steps. Whether you’re an Eels supporter, a fan of the NRL, or just someone who values the benefits to the community that Giant Steps provides, I’d hope you consider helping the school. As a registered charity, all donations are tax deductible. You can check out how to donate to the school via their website, linked here.
Let’s all pitch in to achieve some dreams.
Sixties and Forty20