This summer marks the ninth season of Blowfly Cricket. At the beginning of every season, the bats and stumps are dusted off and set up on the pitch at James Park in Hornsby, New South Wales. There is no scoring in these games, but everyone comes away a winner.
It was during an afternoon barbecue with friends one afternoon that Mark came up with the idea for Blowfly Cricket.
They were munching on burgers and salad, watching the kids play in the yard, when Mark’s friend began talking about how his son Jacob, who has autism, may have difficulty joining a team or playing sports.
He wanted to make sure his son felt comfortable and included, but knew it would take him longer to develop skills and his behaviour could present challenges.
Mark turned to him and said “Why don’t we create a new sport?”
In that moment, the idea for Blowfly Cricket was born. Blowfly Cricket is a type of modified cricket designed for children and young adults with autism or an intellectual disability that focuses on skill building and development in a fun and supportive environment.
In short, Mark described it as a match of backyard cricket, with a few dozen more people involved.
It is open to all those aged between four and 24, with 17 sessions each season. Participants above the age of 16 can also apply for and complete coaching courses.
“Participants take a little longer to master the skills, but they work hard to get there,” Mark said.
“My inspiration was the dream of seeing Jacob and the rest of the Blowfly Cricket team run out onto the Sydney Cricket Ground.
“Through the program, I’ve seen our players do this four times now.”
Mark was also motivated by his own journey with a disability. About a year before starting the program, Mark was diagnosed with paraplegia following a chiropractic manipulation that went wrong. After three months of rehabilitation and a long hospital stay, Mark returned home.
It was a huge adjustment, and there were many barriers for him to overcome, but Mark was determined to continue enjoying his life, albeit a little differently than before.
He said learning to live his life using a wheelchair presented its challenges, and he was forced to change the way he had done things previously, but it gave him a greater appreciation for life.
“Becoming a paraplegic changed all aspects of my life – activities around the house, income and earning potential, friendships and relationships, and dealing with new health issues such as bladder and bowel problems.
“You need to work out your limitations, and you certainly need assistance from your friends, workers and support network, but you can’t go back, so you learn to only look forward and appreciate what is in front of you.”
Mark’s determination has led him to underwater expeditions, diving with humpback whales in Tonga, and founding Blowfly Cricket.
“I think sometimes the kids warm to me more than if I were on my feet, as it feels like more of a level playing field for them,” Mark said.
“One day during a session I was approached by the father of one of the players who said his son got upset because I was in a wheelchair.
“So I went up to him on the field in my wheelchair and said ‘Mate, Blowfly Cricket is the most important thing in my life. I love being involved, and I wouldn’t have it any other way’.
“As you can see, being in a wheelchair doesn’t stop me from getting involved, and I have just as much fun as everyone else.
“His dad rang me that night, and said “My son said ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we make Mark so happy’. Those are monumental moments. Those are the moments that make all of this worth it.
“I still have a wonderful life now with a disability, and it’s fantastic to be a role model to these kids and their families.”
Blowfly Cricket is structured to be inclusive for the players, as well as their family members. Participants don’t have to play cricket every week if they don’t feel like it, but can instead watch and cheer, socialise with friends, or help their parents with the barbecue.
“It’s a safe place; they can stop and have a drink or stop for a chat if they want to,” Mark explained.
“Through this program, I’ve seen kids say some of their first words, throw a ball for the first time, find confidence and achieve milestones.
“Life is all about the things we can make happen for other people,” Mark said.
One of the best parts, he said, is seeing the parents and other family members relaxed and taking a break.
“You’re not just helping one child, you’re opening up the experience to the whole family,” he said.
As for Jacob – the inspiration behind the program nine years ago – he still attends Blowfly Cricket every season.
“He lives on the south west side of Sydney, and they come up once a fortnight during the season.
“He calls me on the Tuesday night before a session and reminds me that he will be showing up that week. At this point, I’m not sure which one of us gets more excited.”
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