The Cumberland Throw

One Small Leap For Rugby League, One Giant Step For The Community


“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.

Sean Keppie and Steve Dresler post-game with their friends from Giant Steps

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.

                                    Tevita ‘TJ’ Masima at work during the morning

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.

Eels forever!

Sixties and Forty20



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31 thoughts on “One Small Leap For Rugby League, One Giant Step For The Community

  1. Greg Okladnikov

    Great story. This is the sort of story that we as fans of the game / the clubs…whichever club we support …..need to push out into the media and make it mainstream news, rather than the front page stories about the stupid behaviour of some.

    As a group, these stories need to shared and promoted so that the community that loves the game ( and the people who don’t / or are 50/50) recognise that the majority – 99.9999999% of people involved in the game are good people, and leave the game as better people, whether their involvement was as a player / coach / manager / admin, etc.

    I have played / coached, and been a fan for my whole life and the current media reporting is so extreme is that it almost is trying to ruin the game.

    So I’m going to start sharing any good news story from TCT on my personal social pages and maybe we can start getting these great positive stories out there…and hopefully the media may start to pay attention to the good in the game

    1. Colin Hussey

      Greg, just read your reply after I put mine in below, I totally agree with you and for me perhaps, the NRL and our club should be making this sort of news more public.

      This off season has been a real downer as far as news with NRL players are concerned, maybe those players involved in their problem areas could be better off serving in areas such as this, might make them wake up to life in the real world,

      1. sixties

        Colin, I can guarantee you that there are players in the full time squad like Reed and Oregon who volunteer on their days off. How’s that for the mindset that’s been created!

    2. sixties

      Thanks Greg. There’s plenty of good out there, and this story is a prime example of how everyone can benefit from the good being done at this school. The relationship between the school and the Eels is truly symbiotic, but of course one of the major concerns for the school is funding their programs. It’s doesn’t matter whether the staff are young Eels players or now ex players, or whether they are specialists in their field, the staffing cost for such a school is massive. Hopefully this story can help enlighten the good done and maybe generate some donations from rugby league supporters.

  2. Trouser Eel

    Another quality article by the Throw that explains why this website is held in such high regard. Well done guys.
    Congratulations are in order for the club and the gentlemen who play for our team, and represent our community with their involvement.

    1. sixties

      Thanks Trouser. Hopefully there’s a bit more awareness about the quality young players at the club and the tremendous work done by the school.

  3. Colin Hussey

    What an enjoyable and encouraging post sixties and forty. What Gurr has said also is on top of the amount of eels players that have been involved in this is also words of value to all who read it and for those who should.

    Thank you for the post and thank you to the players all round, and my heart goes out to the kids.

      1. Colin Hussey

        Its a story that should be on one of the primary RL webb/media sites. RL needs stories like this.

  4. ParraEggTart

    Considering all the off field shenanigans over the last month this certainly puts everything into perspective.
    Well done to Sixties and Forty20 for not only highlighting the amazing work our junior reps do in the community but for making me realise there is more to life than a game of rugby league.
    The students and teachers at giant steps deserve our support and i strongly urge anybody who is able to donate please do so as this is such a worthwile cause and thanks to the team at TCT for highlighting this.

    1. sixties

      The players certainly echo your sentiments mate. There is a real sense of community out at the school, and the most impressive thing that I noticed, which I should have reported in the post, was the smiles on everyone’s faces. Every single staff member that we met or observed were taking on their work with a smile. You sense the love that they all have for what they’re doing, and we can all imagine the challenges faced each day.

  5. Shelley

    What a fantastic story. Every person should have an opportunity to be the best they can and organisations like this provide that opportunity.
    I saw some of this on a couple of players social media accounts last year, re events or fundraisers they attended, yet our mainstream media ignore it. We know the media follows players Instagram hence all the gossip and shoosh pieces yet they ignore these stories. Unfortunately it says a lot about the media in Australia.

    I hope they get help from Parra fans, I know my family have already donated this afternoon. What a wonderful experience for our young men. Thank you Giant Steps and good luck.

    1. sixties

      Thank you the donation Shelley. I really hope that this gets picked up by the mainstream media – and I don’t mean promoting our post. I’m hoping that one of the tv stations or papers makes their own visit to see for themselves and cover it. They get far more eyes than we do.

      1. Greg Okladnikov

        Hi Sixties, I know a sports journalist who works in mainstream media – I have sent the link and have asked if there is value in this as a story ( both sporting / human interest / good news / PR that may be of interest. Hopefully I get a response.

  6. Anonymous

    What a great read. This is superb and to me its what life is about. Not every story has an easy ending and for some of these kids and their families life can be very tough and demanding.
    From someone who works in a school and sees some children with such disabilities its very tough on the children at time and their families.
    I am sure it would be humbling for Parra to be involved and have the players work in such areas of education. Thanks for the read Sixties and superb work for Parra and the community along with Giant Steps for opening up.
    I know there are players across the NRL who work as school support officers ( teachers aides) and for the children it shows them another side to these younger players and vice versa.
    We love our football and Parra, but there is life after footy.


    1. sixties

      Cheers Milo,
      You certainly have the experience to comment with authority on this topic. You reference how difficult it is for both the children and their families. This is important to understand and it’s a huge job for families – and that’s why the relationship between the school and home is so important.

  7. Jimmy Corbo

    Outstanding read Lads and well done to our beloved Eels for being involved in a such great cause.

    I echo the thoughts of others, I cant believe this is 4 years in and this is the first we hear of it. I hate to NRL bash because it is the easy way to go but surely this should have been in the public sphere years ago. An amazing story begging to be told.

    1. sixties

      Thanks Jimmy. It’s my hope that a mainstream media journo picks it up and covers it. We need no credit – we just want the school to be acknowledged.

  8. !0 Year Member

    Nice feel good article. Great for the young lads to do something outside the footy bubble.

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