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How a whole village is raising a netball team

Through the initiative of one trailblazing woman - and the help of a cookie-baking grandma - a low-decile school in east Auckland is striving to ensure any kid who wants to play sport can. 

With whistle in hand, Precious Raupita-Tango displays maturity beyond her 11 years.

It’s one thing to umpire a game of netball in an objective and rational manner, but to do so while reffing your peers is an even bigger test of character.

“We went to a course at the netball courts and they taught us the rules; then I had a trial and I passed that,” she says shyly.

Precious is paid $10 a game, sometimes more depending on the workload. But she doesn’t spend that money like you might think a pre-adolescent would.

“We can use it to help my mum pay bills that she needs to, for the school and the community,” Precious says.

This is a reality many students at Auckland’s Pt England School face.

Nestled among state houses in the so-called ‘leafy eastern suburbs’, it’s a decile 1a school - the lowest on the scale which measures the socio-economic status of the surrounding community, relative to other schools throughout the country.

Just to register a primary school netball team costs $507. On top of that, schools also need to provide uniforms, equipment, managers and coaches.

“It’s really hard. Sport isn't cheap most of the time,” admits Auckland Netball's head of operations, Jacqui Foote. “They’ve got 15 teams and for a lower decile school, that’s amazing."

But they only have one fit-for-purpose netball court. All 15 teams share the space, with a schedule drawn up by the school’s long-time sports coordinator, Sally Va’afusuaga.

At one end of that court, a hoop sits at a 90-degree angle to the shooting circle. Even Maria Folau would have trouble getting the ball in.

Next door, there is another court, but it has no hoops and the asphalt is as smooth as a black mountain run. A drain sits smack in the middle of it.

“They are really good at dodging that,” jokes Va’afusuaga. “We do the best with what we’ve got, but obviously if we can try to get more netball courts or equipment it will support all the teams better.”

After more than a decade at Pt England School, Va’afusuaga knows that’s easier said than done.

She's only recently been able to replace 20-year-old netball uniforms, and she's set up a box for staff to donate their old sports shoes for the kids who don't have any. She's also created a way for families to pay back their children's netball fees over time.

It took several years for the school to be able to afford to appoint her as the full-time sports coordinator. But Va’afusuaga wears many more hats than that. 

"As you know, education is the key to life, and I think with sport and netball, it adds value to their life,” she says. “And if I can help encourage and inspire them to have a healthy and active lifestyle, hopefully it becomes a habit and they can extend that into their own families.”

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you how valued she is, not just at the school, but to the wider community she cares so deeply about.

"It wouldn't happen without her… to pastorally care for coaches, managers, transporters all sorts of people,” says the school’s principal, Russell Burt. “It’s not just the organisation involved, it's the love and care that goes with it.

“This type of thing is achievable if you put your mind to it, but without a Sally, I’m not really sure how you do it.”

One grandma bakes enough cookies for every netball-playing student to ensure they all have something in their bellies on game day.

A former rugby and league player, Va'afusuaga devotes her spare time to other sports in Auckland - she's the sole female on the Counties Manukau Rugby League board, and manages the Auckland U13 boys rugby team. 

At Pt England School, her main goal is to ensure anyone who wants to play netball, can - regardless of their financial situation.

So they do things a little differently.

“There’s a deadline to pay the netball fees, but if those deadlines are not met, then the school still pays the fees straight up, and we allow the parents to pay that back to the school over time,” Va’afusuaga explains.

“That's one way to make sure they don't miss out, by extending that payment period. I know it doesn't work for every school community, but I think that has helped our kids not miss out.”

The students, who know much more about the financial struggles of their families than any 10 or 11-year-old should, agree the payment system helps. 

“Seventy dollars is quite expensive, but we can come in each week and just pay our fees off like $5 or $10,” one of them tells me.

But by paying the fees up front, there’s very little money left in the school's sports budget for equipment or uniforms. Up until this year, some children were playing in uniforms that were 20 years old.

Va’afusuaga’s creative nous put paid to that.

She often searches through lost property or happily accepts second-hand equipment offered up by others to piece together the required gear. She keeps a box at school where staff members - and even strangers - can donate used sports shoes.

"She does come and ask us, and if we are able to help we absolutely do," says Foote of Auckland Netball. "But she is very resource savvy, she puts in a lot of work.

“We gave Sally a box of balls; she only thought she was coming down to pick up used balls. She opened it up and her face was priceless - she was just absolutely blown away.”

So if Pt England, on their limited budget, are able to make sport accessible to one and all, then why are we seeing such a drop off in teenagers playing competitively?

Sport New Zealand's most recent report pointed towards cost as one of the main barriers stopping kids continuing in their chosen field. Another barrier was early specialisation.

The figures are hard to ignore. Participation peaks between 12 and 14 years, before dropping off significantly between the ages of 15 and 17.

The findings prompted New Zealand’s five main sporting bodies to sign a statement of intent to try and improve experiences in youth sport and bring the focus back on fun.

“I like playing with my friends on the court and supporting them,” one Pt England student said.

“We have a great time, we work together and be kind, be strong and never give up,” said another.

But Burt, who’s been at Pt England School for over 20 years, believes enjoyment isn’t the problem.

“I think when we were younger, lots and lots of people volunteered - not just in sports teams and different codes, but Scouts and Brownies, and all those sorts of things too. I think there’s a drop-off in attendance not because there’s a shortage of children or a lack of appetite – it’s simply having enough people to run the programmes, helping people to get there safely and home again.”

That’s where Va'afusuaga comes in. By working so closely with the community, she gets buy-in.

One grandma, she tells me, bakes enough cookies for every netball-playing student to ensure they all have something in their bellies on game day. 'Gigi', as she’s affectionately known, has been doing that for six years.

“It takes a village and that's really true. The 15 teams we had this year weren't possible without 23 staff members - that involves classroom teachers, administration staff and support teachers who coach and manage. Wrapped around that we have other staff members who help us with transport or sponsor fees, or they turn up and cheer the kids on,” Va’afusuaga says.

She takes time to write a blog, complete with match reports, photos and notices, so parents are kept up-to-date.

It can be a vicious circle for parents. Work demands are increasing, meaning less time for volunteering and escalating the need for paid managers and coaches. That, in turn, puts the price up.

“I think that’s one of the bigger barriers. A lot of parents nowadays are too busy and have a lot of time constraints set against them so their volunteer time is cut,” says Foote, who analyses the netball programmes of schools in the Auckland area.

“They think it’s too hard to do trainings or get to games.”

Pt England has over 100 volunteers across a variety of extra-curricular activities. A self-created luxury afforded to a school which doesn’t have many.

Says Foote: “We look on Pt England almost as an example to other schools who struggle to say ‘Hey, you can get involved with sport’.”

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