On an AFL oval in Park Ridge, George Dinkelman’s AusKick journey is only beginning, but it’s already changing his life for the better.

He doesn’t speak many words, but this 5-year-old absorbs everything around him, from the way the ‘big kids’ kick and punt the ball to how they walk and run.

Every moment of play is a learning experience helping him piece together vital motor skills and social skills.

As a boy with Down syndrome, George has struggled with critical health problems and learning difficulties since birth.

Despite these challenges, his mum Cassandra Dinkelman believes strongly in not letting that define him.

Cassandra with George

“I’m a single Mum, I spent lots of my time worrying about everything,” said Cassandra. “You find out that actually there’s no limitation on what they can do — it’s just your imagination.”

Cassandra always wanted to get him playing a social sports activity to help his development. But that had to be an environment where George could participate at his own pace. That’s where AusKick has been so beneficial.

“I heard about AusKick through work and heard they were doing amazing things,” said Cassandra. “I decided ‘right, we’re going to take a chance on this, we’re going to jump in and see if it works, and that’s what we did.”

Cassandra is an Education Support Officer for Down Syndrome QLD, so she sees and hears a lot about negative experiences of other parents in her position.

“I only hear negative stories, so I only presume we’re going to have a bad experience, but I go with the hope that we’re going to have a positive experience,” Cassandra explained.

But her worries were short lived. The Pirates made her feel right at home.

“Honestly, I couldn’t have felt like both of us were more welcomed if they’d tried,” Cassandra said. “Every single thing I could have hoped for was exactly how they did it. It’s a demonstration of how kids with down syndrome can be included. We’re only at the very beginning of our time in AFL but I feel like it was one of the best choices we could have made.”

George goes to AusKick

George’s first AusKick session was a breakout moment. Until then his life had been a cycle of hospital appointments and therapy sessions because of his condition and susceptibility to serious illness. As a result, he couldn’t do most of what other kids his age were doing, be it attending school in the mainstream classroom or playing sport.

“We had to delay lots of things in life because George took a lot longer to learn things,” said Cassandra.

But George has progressed well since the early days of therapy when he had four sessions per week. He’s now down to just the one session for music therapy, and he’s finally ready to take on new challenges.

“He is 6 in a couple of weeks and he’s only in prep, but he’s one of the oldest in his class,” Cassandra said. “Now he’s had his time to work on basic skills, like communication and movement, he’s ready for learning in a mainstream classroom.”

And a personal highlight for Cassandra — she can finally get him playing team sport. That means the world to her.

“It makes those times when he’s resisting and when you really have to teach him everything, it makes those all worthwhile because you can see it’s making a difference,” she said.

Thursday night, May 20 was George’s first night back at AusKick after being side-lined for a month due to a chest infection. He quickly showed signs of the confidence he’d built in his first few sessions. Here’s him kicking off the mini-game at the end.

Thursday night, May 20, was George’s first night back in a month due to a chest infection. The disruption was unfortunate because he was just starting to hit his straps and mix with the other kids.

“He’s usually so much more into it,” Cassandra told us on the night. “Back during the last time he played, he was running around with the other kids and actually knew what he was doing.”

After a quick reset, he was back picking up the ball and kicking it along the ground. He was slightly more distant than usual, but confident enough to run over to the coach in the middle of the team when his name was called to kick off a mini game. He wasn’t overawed by the situation, which was important. All good signs, Cassandra thought. That would do for the night.

He’s come a long way from where he started.

“The first session he definitely wasn’t interested,” Cassandra said. “He clinged to me like a second skin and insisted that he didn’t want to do anything away from holding onto me for dear life.”

George’s big hurdle at the start was grasping the concept of walking and standing unassisted. Five training sessions was all it took to turn that around.

“By the time we went to the last one he was confident to take a walk up and kick the ball on the ground or punt the ball from my hand, or to pass the ball to someone else,” Cassandra said.

Seeing other kids running around playing was exactly what George needed to make the connections to do what he has been learning at therapy.

“To see all the other kids on the grass kicking a football and hitting the football and passing the football, that was all he needed,” she said. “He just needed to see the other kids doing it and realise that’s what we do. So I think it was a huge contributing factor.”

Pirates President Andy Colenso first met Cassandra and George when they came down for their first AusKick session.

“By the time I got there we were probably four weeks into it, and he was out kicking with them, laughing and carrying on, yeah, it was good,” said Andy. “I was wrapped to hear that he was actually doing it.”

As an uncle to a 22-year-old nephew who has Down syndrome, Andy understands the condition and how it can affect families. He’s also seen how warmly the club has welcomed his nephew, and how much it means to him to be part of it.

“He’s just so passionate about the Pirates,” said Andy. “He wears the Pirates gear everywhere. He’d come to most games and he’d get in the circle and sing with the boys. And when it was his birthday, the boys got a cake and put it in the middle and sung the club song around him.”

Andy wants George to feel at home just like his nephew.

“If it’s bringing him out of his skin and it’s good for his therapy, we should keep trying to make sure there’s an opportunity for him to do it,” Andy said. “We’ll speak to Cassandra about that and make sure we’re helping to keep developing him and helping him wherever we can as a club and community.”

That might mean George plays AusKick till his mid-teens and then trains socially around the club.

“We’d endeavour to at least keep him in the club, and if he couldn’t play actual games, our focus would be on getting him training to at least have him mixing with kids his own age,” Andy said.

What does George’s playing future look like after AusKick?

From a competition perspective, George’s options might be limited after AusKick.

The AFL is doing a lot in the disability space to ensure opportunities improve for players like him, as seen in the disability inclusion competition for over 16-year-olds and the one held at schools.

Outside of that, there isn’t yet a specific club competition for juniors with disabilities. That means a player transitioning from AusKick to the inclusion competition either must wait until they come of age or play in the main junior stream if they’re capable.

That could all change with a new effort by AFL Queensland to expand the disability inclusion competition beyond the three current teams and full-scale version of the game.

This June and July, AFLX — a modified format of the game — will be trialled in a three-day social carnival.

AFL Queensland Inclusion Coordinator Peter Yagmoor hopes it’ll inspire other clubs around the state to start inclusion teams.

“The aim was to target local clubs and have those clubs adopt a team,” said Peter. “That’s the main goal, we want it to be wherever.”

AFLX is played on a rectangular field with 8 players and four reserves, as opposed to the main inclusion game requiring 12 on the field and four on the bench.

“The reason we want AFLX is there’re less numbers, you can play it anywhere,” Peter said. “At times with other clubs and seasons running, it’s hard to get oval space, so with AFLX, we can modify it.”

Andy Colenso with George at one of his first AusKick sessions

With AFLX being more social, casual, and less physically demanding because it’s played on a smaller field, it’ll be open to players with all disabilities. This differs from the original inclusion format, which restricts eligibility to players with intellectual impairments for fairness and safety in the competition.

If the trial succeeds, AFL Queensland wants to transform the format it a full club competition.

“This year is social and casual — however, if it does take off and other clubs become interested, we will look to make and inclusion club competition where clubs take ownership,” AFL Queensland said in a statement.

This concept could be ideal for the Pirates, who’ve long wanted to start an inclusion team but haven’t been able to due to a lack of space and players.

With AFLX requiring fewer numbers and smaller fields, the Pirates president is eager to revisit the idea.

“It’d definitely be something we’d be interested in doing,” said Andy.

The club is preparing to relocate to new grounds at Everleigh in the next two years. Once there, Andy said they’ll be well placed to start an inclusion team.

“When we get into the new facility in Everleigh, that would give us the base to do it from and make it a really special thing for the community,” he said. “It’s awkward from the school where we’re based now with our lack of space and resources, but when we move, starting up and inclusion team under the new format would be a high priority.

Shut Up and Dance: song inspires Cassandra in moment of need

Cassandra and George share a special bond through music: they get up to dance whenever ‘Shut Up and Dance’ by Walk The Moon comes on – a tradition trailing back to when George was born.

“When he was born, and I had to say goodbye to him in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), the first song I heard when I was away from him was ‘Shut Up and Dance’,” Cassandra said. “I felt like it was him telling me, ‘hey, we’ve got this, we can do it’.”

Cassandra witnessed George being put on oxygen at birth

That song came as a huge blessing highlighting to Cassandra how lucky she was to have George because the situation could have been much different — George nearly didn’t survive.

“He had fluid on his brain – he had lots of issues they thought were going to cause him lots of trouble when he was in utero let alone when he was born,” Cassandra said. “I even watched a team in hospital resuscitate my son in front of my eyes.”

Cassandra tried to fall pregnant for 13 years, so to finally achieve that and find out about all these complications was incredibly hard to process.

“It was frightening,” said Cassandra. “I spent from probably about 14 weeks pregnant to the time he was born crying because I was just convinced that this wasn’t going to go very well.”

After enduring depression from that experience, and not knowing what the Down syndrome diagnosis would mean for their lives, life slowly healed over those wounds as she saw George grow into the young man he is today.

“Once he was born, I decided ‘you know what, he’s all I’ve ever wanted, we’ll get through it’,” Cassandra said. “I know we’re only 6 years into it, but I feel like George is the best gift that I could have ever received, ever.”

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