All Star Ella

My name is Maria Curtis Ui Chinneide.  I am married to Sean O Cinneide, we have two children and live in Raheny, Dublin.  Our children are aged 13yrs (daughter Ella) and our son is 11yrs (Seaghan).  Our daughter Ella was born with Down syndrome and also moderate hearing loss along with other sensory difficulties. Ella uses a form of sign language called Lámh to communicate as she is not verbal.  Ella can become very anxious and finds new situations, large groups, places very challenging. As a family we enjoy our walks to our local beach and park. 

Ella is a busy and very active young girl, she loves being outside in the fresh air and needs lots of opportunities to burn off all her energy.  Ella attends Yoga weekly with a fantastic organisation called Blossom Ireland, where she also enjoys a Blossom discovery camp over Easter & Summer.  We have tried Ella in various clubs and activities but usually had to leave as Ella was not able to cope or we were encouraged to leave.  Recently though we had the opportunity to give Ella a try at sailing (funded by Down syndrome Dublin, taking part at Sutton Dinghy Club.)  Ella seems to really enjoy being out on the water and found it very relaxing.  Ella attends a Special National School at St Michaels House in Raheny and has recently had a chance to get involved in week long summer camp and enjoyed it all.  We want Ella to have a healthy active life and try and give her as many opportunities and experiences as possible. It’s not always easy and we are aware that Ella is very dependent on us (parents) for company and playtime.

The GAA was a very important part of life growing up for my family, with wonderful memories following the Dublin Football team.  My grandparents, aunts & uncles were all involved in the GAA.  My Dad was a referee and my Mam was always involved in our local club, like lots of other Mams, washing jerseys and transporting young players around to matches.  This carries through to today and a big part of our family life is our interest in the GAA, our son Seaghan plays hurling and football at under 11 age group for our local GAA club, Raheny GAA.  My husband helps out mentoring and has always wanted Ella to be involved in the club.   Raheny GAA like a lot of GAA clubs up and down the country is the centre of our local community and such an important part of local life.   I decided to look into starting up a team that Ella could manage in.  Having carried out some research with the GAA and local clubs to see there was a team already in place for children with special needs, I found one club running a team for young adults with special needs, this was taking place weekly in Naomh Mearnog led by a great man and former Dublin Senior Footballer, his name is Mick Kissane (he gave me great recommendations and a key piece of advice was the willingness to commit). Wanting to further progress the possibility of Ella being involved in our local club and to promote inclusion within the club and community, I first approached the juvenile secretary in our club Neil Kelly in 2015 to discuss the possibility of starting up a group for children with special needs.  Neil put me in touch with a stalwart in the club Mary Lawlor (Marys son Michael was one of our first All Stars alongside Ella).  We discussed getting started and the club were behind us.Due to family commitments and busy lives it eventually came about in September 2016.  At this stage I was studying Community Development, this was a fantastic course and gave me a lot of the tools needed to start up a community group.  When the All Stars started we agreed to try it out initially as a pilot. Other members of the club came forward to volunteer their time (in particular Catherine Bedford Leech – now our coaching coordinator and Kevin Woods one of our senior mentors) A key aspect at the early stage was the support from our very kind and caring club Games Promotion Officer Will Lillis, Will is an experienced coach and had some experience working with children with special needs. We had 4 children initially and currently have a 15 boys & girls ages 9yrs – 13yrs. The sessions take place each Friday on the club Astro pitch were we have 22 coaches coming to give up their time each week, with a special note to our 17 juvenile coaches that give up their time each week to help, assist and play with our children.  Some of our children need to have 1:1 coaching and therefore we need a lot of support.  The sessions are guided by our head coach Will and I coordinate the overall group.  This initiative has been very well received from our children, their families, our coaches and wider membership in the club.  For Ella it means having to turn up each week and listen to her coach, Ella is out in the community, people are getting to know her and it gives us a place where we can belong as a family.  I would say it has been absolutely transformative for all of our lives to take part in something so positive.

There have been plenty of challenges getting Ella involved in activities locally…we’ve had good and bad experiences.  Most of the challenges are usually around people being afraid of the unknown i.e. perhaps not having any experience, knowing or working with a child with a disability, although there are few with prejudice, I believe most people would like to see a more inclusive society and agree that our children deserve all the same opportunities as other children their age.  A recent quote from our sons school principal “always remember to see the child/ children first and the diagnosis second” (Sinead O Meara)

There are so many well documented benefits to physical exercise/ sport not just fitness but mental and emotional wellbeing, which are critical elements in our weekly sessions in addition to that I believe it’s very important to note that children with special needs can experience isolation and loneliness, as the opportunities to form friendships are not as straightforward as a typical developing child of a similar age.  This was another significant reason behind starting up the All Stars to give Ella and other children with special needs a chance to mix with children, learn new skills and have fun in a safe environment. In practical terms the overall management of All Stars team requires a lot of organisation, planning and commitment and takes a lot of effort.  My best advice to other clubs considering a similar initiative would be to say have a go, talk to your club members and local residents,  get support, look at local partners that might have experience or an interest in helping you get up and running. The most important thing to remember are the children/ teenagers/ adults and what it might mean to their lives. In my opinion the most important skills to have are patience, kindness and a willingness to commit your time each week to give an opportunity to a young person or adult that needs your help and support to get involved in their community.  Our children deserve the best of everything, every opportunity and the very best of all us and always putting the children at the forefront of your plans.



The Raheny All Stars name was chosen by the group, coaches, parents & children gave their suggestions as to what we would be called.

We are heading into our third season and this could not have been done without the support of the Club Executive, Games Promotion Officer, Members of the Club, Senior & Juvenile Coaches, All Star Organising Committee, the Healthy Club Project team.   Our partners outside the club:  Dublin City Council Sports & Wellbeing Officer, BT Ireland Social Fund, Blossom Ireland,  Local Supervalu, Dublin County Health & Wellbeing Committee, GAISCE. GAA FUN N RUN. Dublin GAA.

Finally and most importantly our wonderful children and their families. J