“THE COMMUNITY Games has brought me a second family of friends in every county in Ireland as well as helping me get a job.”
That’s according to 23-year-old Jennifer Baker, from Mitchelstown, who is getting ready to volunteer at the Aldi Community Games this weekend for the seventh year in a row — and she can’t wait.
This year the games will take place over two weekends — this weekend coming and August 18-20. The National Festivals will see some 7,000 children travel from around Ireland to the Sport Ireland National Sports Campus at Abbotstown Dublin to take part and without volunteers like Jennifer it couldn’t go ahead.
Jennifer started out competing in the games when she was 16 in the high jump and relay events. Her memories of that first outing are still vivid and she remembers it as a fantastic weekend where she made life-long friends.
She wasn’t a winner but despite it sounding clichéd she insists that part was quickly forgotten.
And that’s what the ethos of the games is all about — to encourage and introduce young people to a love of sport and culture, focusing on taking part rather than winning and using their leisure time in a healthy way.
Community Games celebrates its 50th anniversary — Golden Jubilee — this year which also marks the first of a three-year sponsorship by Aldi Ireland to invest in and reinvigorate the event for future generations.
Earlier this year more than 160,000 children across 575 communities took part in over 200 scheduled regional events supported by 20,000 volunteers. The National Festivals brings together the regional champions in friendly competition across a wide range of sporting and cultural activities, individual and team sports. Helping the children will be some 300 volunteers like Jennifer each day overseeing activities including swimming, rugby, badminton, Gaelic football, hurling, skittles, debating, draughts, cross country and gymnastics.
Other diverse events include choir, table quiz, hand writing and dance. Jennifer describes how she made the switch from competitor to volunteer and how she hasn’t looked back since.
“The year after I finished competing I was asked if I wanted to volunteer and I jumped at the chance as my memories were so good of the weekend — there’s such a friendly vibe and atmosphere, it’s almost like a holiday.”
She worked her way up the ranks starting out on car park duty, then an activities assistant and this year she’s soccer coordinator which suits her skill set perfectly.
Jennifer studied Sports Science in IT Carlow, plays football for Glanworth and trains their minor team; in her school days she played soccer for Cork City Girls and was a member of Fannahan McSweeney Athletics club where she’s still involved.
The young woman also works full time in Walsh’s Pharmacy, Fermoy — all things combined it means she’s incredibly busy but importantly still finds time to volunteer at the games, attend monthly meetings and help recruit crucial competitors and helpers.
But she hardly regards it as work or an effort but something to look forward to.
“I’ve made around 30 lifetime friends through the Community Games and could go to any county in Ireland and have a place to stay. When I went to college I made friends straight away through friends of friends I’d met at the Games. It has given me a great network of contacts and support.
“It’s also very rewarding work, and to see the faces of kids running over the finishing line is just amazing.”
She said her volunteering has helped build her confidence, learn how to deal with the public and be organized and accountable.
“In fact my boss said the experience I had earned at the Games was what gave me the edge and got me my job,” said Jennifer.
Over the past 50 years more than five million children have participated in Community Games, including many of Ireland’s celebrities, sporting heroes and world-famous actors. Some of the names in the history books include Paul O’Connell, Saoirse Ronan, Olive Loughnane, Bressie, Niall Quinn and Sonia O’Sullivan.
“The likes of Paul O’Connell and Sonia O’Sullivan have said that the Community Games experience really stood to them during their professional careers,” said Jennifer.
Jennifer plans to continue her involvement with the Games indefinitely but says there’s always room for more volunteers to come on board and is appealing to people to consider helping out.
“I think people are missing out by not getting involved — regardless of the group — they use the excuse that they’ve no time but they can still catch up on their soaps! Specifically it would be brilliant to see more youth volunteers (17 years minimum) come on board. What you get back makes it all worthwhile.”
See communitygames.ie for more.