Emma (right) couldn’t believe there were so few accessible sports clubs for her daughter Grace (left) (Picture: Emma Colverd)
Like any mother, Emma Colverd wants the best for her daughter, Grace. And Emma believes that Grace’s learning disabilities should never hold her back.
Emma was delighted when Grace was able to join a basketball programme in New York for young people with learning disabilities – something that had previously been out of bounds for her. But when they returned to London in 2016 Emma found there was little available to help her Grace continue her passion and to stay active and socialise.
So, Emma set up her own inclusive sports club to help Grace, and other children like her – the Safe Haven Basketball Club.
‘Fitness is a very important part of my life,’ Emma tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I first got into doing classes at the gym after having my second child. Doing classes alongside a lot of other people encourages me and keeps me motivated, and I have made friends and felt better mentally whenever I am regularly involved in doing classes, whether it is step, or yoga, or pilates.’
Emma also loves playing tennis with her husband and three kids – all three of her children love sports, and Emma wanted to make sure sport could continue to be a part of Grace’s live, regardless of her disabilities.
Disabled children and young people are twice as likely to be lonely, compared to their non-disabled peers and only a quarter of disabled children regularly take part in sport and activity at school.
With Safe Haven Basketball, Emma wanted to make sure that marginalised young people can experience the health and social benefits of sport, as they are so often excluded from mainstream activities.
‘Of course there have been hard parts of bringing up Grace,’ says Emma. ‘I used to call it “combat parenting” because there were so many times when we had to fight to get her what she needed to be able to flourish, to be her voice.
The pair love playing tennis together (Picture: Emma Colverd)
‘But really, Grace has been a gift to our family. She is the most overwhelmingly loving and positive presence, getting pleasure out of everything that life offers and often really surprising us with her abilities and her insights.
‘Seeing all my children grow up has been delightful, and Grace is no exception – we are so proud of all she has achieved.’
Starting the inclusive club for Grace has been Emma’s way of showing her appreciation for the love and happiness that her daughter has brought to her life. She also wants Grace to have every opportunity that other children have.
‘Grace absolutely loves all sports, and basketball in particular,’ explains Emma. ‘Sport gives her confidence, fitness and positive experiences.
‘It is a shared activity, which requires awareness of other people and helps to develop this awareness, at the same time as having clearly defined rules and boundaries, so that everyone can be sociable even if this is not their particular skill.
‘I want Grace to have exactly the same opportunities as kids without learning disabilities do – it seems completely normal to me that there should be sport available at all levels.’
‘We aim to be completely inclusive of all levels of ability’ (Picture: Safe Haven Basketball)
Emma’s club is supported by sport inclusion charity Access Sport, through their disability inclusion programme – which so far has engaged more than 10,000 disabled young people and up-skilled over 800 new disability inclusive coaches and volunteers. Safe Haven Basketball now has clubs in Westminster, Hackney and Southwark.
‘Belonging to a club brings friendships, common experiences and interests within a structured environment which is why so many people love belonging to sports clubs. Grace is no different,’ says Emma.
‘She loves the fitness aspect, she is competitive and loves it when she scores, she enjoys the success of her team, or the bonding that happens when things don’t go according to plan.
‘It gives her a community, one which stretches from Madison Square Garden (where she has actually played) to our local sessions. She is a fan and a player.’
Emma set the club up when her family returned from a two-year stint in New York. She secured some funding from Basketball England, found a coach and a sports hall and started classes with the help of a teacher at her daughter’s college.
‘We have grown ever since, mostly by word of mouth,’ says Emma. ‘Our sports club is for any young person with learning disabilities aged between 14 and 25 who wants to be play basketball and be part of a club. We work with volunteers and a L2 professional coach at all sessions.’
Emma’s hope is to provide opportunities to play basketball, be part of a team and a club, to take part in competitions, regionally and nationally.
‘We aim to be completely inclusive of all levels of ability, and to provide continuity and community to the players, to reinforce existing friendships, and to help to forge new friendships,’ adds Emma.
‘School leavers often find their participation opportunities in sport dropping away, and we seek to redress this, and to give our players a lifelong love of basketball, and the tools to continue to play throughout their lives.
‘We also aim to develop leadership skills and opportunities within the sport. Our volunteers come from many different sources, and we widen their horizons of what is possible through sport, while at the same time widening the experiences of our members.’
Emma is so passionate about sport being accessible for people like Grace because the list of benefits that comes with being active is just so long.
‘I think the main thing is confidence and a sense of belonging,’ says Emma. ‘Physical exercise is also a really important part of this, and we have high expectations, which build positive experiences for both our players and their families.
‘I would say that the improvement in mental health is as strong as the improvement in physical well-being – that are interrelated. And friendships have been formed so that, for example, during lockdown, there has been reduced isolation and a sense of mutual support.’
And Emma says these positive effects have rippled out to the families of her club members too, so the benefits are truly wide-reaching.
‘People with learning disabilities are people and just like any other person, sport benefits them too,’ says Emma.
‘Adaptations do not need to be costly or difficult – it is really about having a ‘can do’ attitude, high expectations and community values. I cannot see any reason to argue that sport should not be accessible to everyone.’
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