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‘We’re so humbled to have these legends’

In world that always seems full of bad news stories, especially when it comes to rugby league, it is so important to share the good ones.

A wonderful organisation that was born out of love in Western Sydney three years ago, called Heroes with Ability, provides modified sports programs throughout schools and disability services for young people with disabilities.

The 10-week program introduces the kids to different sports and teaches them new skills. Last term it was a Mini Olympics, where they created modified versions of Olympic events so everyone could join in. This term is rugby league.

“We have come up with different drills and modified stations so everyone can participate,” explained Marco Quintao, founder of the organisation. “We are trying to change the way we train the kids and young adults, so they feel like they can represent teams and achieve goals. We make up teams and create logos and give them a shirt for who they are representing to make them feel like they are part of a team, that they are playing for a team.”

Marco, who has a son with the same name who has a disability, began Heroes with Ability so he could give back to the community, help families who have gone through the same difficulties that he and his family have endured, and bring the love of sport to those who are living with a disability.

“When my son Marco was in primary school, he was bullied almost every day. And having an intellectual disability as well as a physical disability, he was never included. He would come home and ask his mum and I why he couldn’t play sport, why he couldn’t be involved.

“Things changed in 2007. A rugby league player came to young Marco’s school and talked to them about league and the importance of inclusion, his name was Chris Heighington. He was only supposed to be there for an hour talking to the kids, and he came up and asked my wife and I if we minded if he sat down and spent the rest of the day with young Marco. We were just blown away.

“From that moment, the kids that were bullying young Marco, saw him with Chris, bonding together, kicking and passing – all of a sudden young Marco was a superstar! They all wanted him on their teams. And that’s what we want to do for other kids with our program. Getting kids with all kinds of disability out there involved, playing sport, and feeling included.”

His business partner George knows all too well about not being given a chance to participate.

“I was born with cerebral palsy, and I went to a mainstream school in the ’80s and ’90s. I knew I was different, and no one would ever pick me for the sporting sides. It really affected me emotionally, made me very cynical, and took its toll.

“But for my 21st birthday I gave myself a present, and it was to go and try sports. I went on to represent NSW in futsal indoor soccer, I was a Paralympian at the 2000 Games for athletics and I have represented Australia for physical disability rugby league as well. I know firsthand what playing sport does for a disabled person. Physically, emotionally – it really makes a difference.”

“And it’s not just playing sport,” Marco added. “It’s building their confidence, having interactions with other kids, improving their communication skills – the sport is a bonus.”

Heighington has since become an ambassador for the organisation, along with other NRL champions like Ivan and Nathan Cleary, Ryan Matterson and most recently Luke Brooks and James Tedesco.

“Young Marco is a Tigers fan, and we would take him to every game. He still loves them, and it doesn’t matter to him how they are going! We saw James and Luke last month and they came up to us and started talking and asking Marco how he has been. When we told them about Heroes with Ability, they thought it was wonderful and wanted to be part of it.

“Ryan Matterson was our first ambassador, back when he was at the Tigers. Most of our ambassadors have come about because of young Marco and his love for the Tigers and the team getting to know him. Ivan Cleary was at the Tigers when he became a part of it, and then Nathan jumped on board straight away.

“They have all come on because they want to be involved with us and help promote what we do. We are so humbled to have these legends of the game alongside of us.”

Ryan Matterson thanks Parramatta crowd

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The NRL has been a huge support to both Marco and George and are always willing to do whatever they can.

“From day one they have always sat down with us and listened,” replied Marco. “They have always been very helpful, always included us in their school holiday clinics. I have never had a setback or a knock back from anyone – they have always been very supportive of us.

“I know sometimes the NRL and rugby league players in general have a bad reputation, but there is nothing bad we could say about them. And not just the NRL, the clubs as well. They have all be amazing.

“One of our community partners are the Parramatta Eels, they jumped on board with us from day one. They did a three-year partnership with us so we could get into the schools.

“Brett White down at the Raiders is another ambassador, a little while ago we went down to Canberra and watched the Raiders train, and everyone got to meet the players. They were so accommodating of us from the minute we got there.

Chris Heighington England Rugby League 2017

Chris Heighington. (Image: NRL)

“And the other clubs that we have ambassadors from are amazing as well. On the weekends we have a bay at the games called the ‘Heroes with Ability Bay’ where we take the people with disabilities and their families to go and watch the games, and the clubs always supply us with tickets, it’s never a problem. They are so supportive. Every club we have ever spoken to have been so supportive.

“I always ask the families before they go to a game if this is their first time experiencing something like this. 95 percent of them have never gone to anything live. More often than not, it’s because they don’t want to be judged or have their kids judged and see how the public reacts if their kids are acting differently. So, I always tell the parents that when they are with us it is a safe and family friendly environment, and the clubs really help with that.”

The NRL also donated 300 tickets to Magic Round this year so Marco and George could take the kids and their families.

“Everyone loved the weekend,” explained Marco. “We were lucky enough to stay at the same hotel as six of the clubs, and never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how wonderful that was going to be. A young boy with us named Luke, he has down syndrome and is a mad Penrith supporter, but every other club that was there had no issues coming up and talking to him. And not just a quick hi and a photo, they actually sat down and had a conversation with him.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

“His parents said that weekend will stick with Luke for the rest of his life.”

Marco hopes to be able to grow the organisation to be nationwide. “Eventually, we want to replicate what we do here in Sydney, in every other state around Australia. Our aim over the next three years is to be in Melbourne, Gold Coast and Brisbane.

“We want everyone to be able to participate in sport and know what it means to feel included. It’s so rewarding to see so many smiles and happy tears at the end of the day.”

It was such an honour speaking with Marco and George, and what they do for others is just beautiful. And it was great to hear how wonderful the rugby league community are with them, and how much support they receive.

“You only every hear the bad stuff with rugby league,” said Marco. “We want everyone to know the good, and know how much the NRL, clubs and players do for us and the community.”

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