WHAT might seem a simple concept, getting footballers to talk books with youngsters, is having a powerful effect on Ballarat.
We might not have had an AFL pre-season hit-out or AFLW clash land on Mars this summer, but Western Bulldogs' visit to Ballarat this week was an important, albeit more subtle, reminder on other far-reaching impacts the club is making in our community.
In this case, literacy.
Ballarat is the only part of the 'Doggies' territory to have a program encouraging children to pick up books and enjoy a read. This is largely driven by a passionate Ballarat Libraries team but for it to work, the Dogs need to be invested.
To have a star small like Caleb Daniel sit down and want to talk books in the library has to spark interest in a bunch of pupils. (Though, like most superheroes away from action, Daniel had to remind pupils he looked different because he usually sports a helmet).
As someone who grew up in a town where the Cattery was like a mecca, and those who ruled its hallowed turf worshipped, having AFL footballers visiting your school for clinics was a given. To an extent, Bulldogs' visits to schools similar in a fun but expected part of a partnership way. And clinics are not often with big-name players.
Bulldogs Read is special.
The program will take in a record 108 children from six primary schools for its fifth season. Predominantly those selected by schools are at-risk readers or pupils needing a confidence boost.
Pupils will submit book reviews and have follow-up Skype sessions with players in an exclusive book club format.
Jasper from Canadian Lead told The Courier last year the program helped him like reading and writing again. He went from picture books to chapter books and a new-found love of graphic novels. Jasper said getting to know the players in the program helped him become more interested in sports and realise sport was not just for the "sporty kids".
This program has to be a great investment for players, too, who can all too easily get wrapped up in the AFL bubble of training, playing and routine community work like school clinics. Like many jobs really.\
This is perhaps why is stood out so much when Hawthorn's playing group got to work re-fencing properties in Corryong and aiding residents in Buchan in late January. Hawks' ruckman John Ceglar said players were wanting to actually get out in bush fire-affected communities and help.
"When you're in Melbourne you don't realise how bad it is," Ceglar said on hawthornfc.com.au. "We hope that by being down in the local community, we can lead by example and encourage others to do the same."
First-year Bulldog Riley Garcia told The Courier he was fast-learning about the power of setting a good example with an AFL player profile. The 19-year-old helped launch Bulldogs Read in Ballarat, saying books helped offer him perspective. Garcia hoped pupils might find a few inspirational true stories in their reading.
Such programs show players and communities how football can truly be more than a game.
- More From the Press Box with Melanie Whelan here.
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