As Covid-19 continues to destabilise communities and industries across the world, there is one area, in particular, that is vulnerable to being both undervalued and overlooked by those in power - physical education. James Mandigo (2010) of Brock University stated in his study regarding quality physical education for Canadian children and youth - "Physical education is the one place within Canadian society in which every child has equal and equitable opportunities to develop the attitudes, skills, and knowledge to lead an active, healthy lifestyle." Nowhere is that more pertinent than Cape Breton Island.
With the highest child poverty rates in Atlantic Canada and the third highest in the country, Nova Scotia is in the midst of a monumental crisis that, not only preceded the pandemic but has undoubtedly worsened since. Now, many children in the region are having to contend with the hardships of poverty alongside the real risk of missing out on key areas of their education. Sensing a crisis in the making, Cape Breton University and Cape Breton Regional Municipality have responded by creating new partnerships and adapting existing ones to bridge the gaps left by Covid-19.
The first of those partnerships is Capers in the Community, a regional outreach program that has delivered engaging, multi-sport sessions to over 1,100 local children this year, a remarkable feat given the circumstances. In the virtual space, there is the newly formed Capers at Home initiative which aims to serve the community by providing online activities and games focusing on the fundamentals of physical literacy. Eager to highlight the connection between University and Municipality in regards to the formation of these initiatives, CBU Men's Soccer Head Coach and Program Lead, Deano Morley, wants his community to know - "we've got something really special going here and the real story is about partnership."
"It's only because that partnership is so strong that when COVID hit, we were able to adapt and create the Capers at Home program. We were able to use that partnership and our athletes to inspire kids who have been stuck at home, who haven't been getting any physical activity due to sports in the community being cancelled. We were able to create this online platform and communication tool that has gained over 125,265 impressions on Facebook alone. It is a Capers at Home program that came out of this powerful partnership, a partnership that was built to help our community."
Not satisfied with providing virtual solutions, Morley, and his collaborators within the CBRM have mobilised to make sure children in their community have the opportunity to get back outside and involved in sport again as soon as possible. Highlighting the multiple benefits of physical literacy and education, Coach Morley presents a compelling argument as to why these initiatives are so vital to local communities, especially during a pandemic.
"We see a lot of dropout in sport because kids aren't given that foundation, that base. Then they don't have a positive experience because they haven't been given the fundamental skills. We want to give kids these fundamental skills so that when they want to try something, they can enjoy it, they can do it and they are prepared to succeed. What comes out of that is healthier people who are active for life. That is the philosophy of this partnership. So, when the restrictions started being eased, we said to ourselves right away 'Okay, how do we get back out into the community safely?' Again, that partnership allowed us to do that, it's that powerful partnership between the University and Municipality that's driving change at the community level."
To generate change within a community, especially during a pandemic, programs need boots on the ground. For Capers in the Community, those boots take the form of Jonathan Penny, Sport Development Officer at CBRM, who Morley says: "should be credited for all of this, he's done so much work and has just been brilliant."
Penny, a former Caper himself, and CBRM Recreation Manager, Kirk Durning, have had to overcome a period of tumult, unrivalled in recent times, to deliver safe sporting experiences to over 1,000 children in 11 different communities. Describing the implementation of enhanced safety regulations in the face of Covid-19, Durning readily admits there was concern amongst parents, to begin with.
"There was a lot of fear around Covid-19, so, having the ability to ensure that we're following provincial guidelines and even going a step further in how we dealt with things, the feedback we got was really well received. Once the program started and a lot of parents' fears were eased, they were really happy that they had this opportunity for their kids because I know, for everybody who has kids, it was a really challenging time."
Of course, safety precautions alone are not enough to energise a community. Capers in the Community was formed by passionate and knowledgeable leaders from two of the islands largest institutions and implemented by star athletes and student role models alike, making it a uniquely inspirational initiative according to Penny.
"It starts right from the top. Their (CBU) professors are knowledgeable and engaged. The values, they have at the school are the same as ours, where you want to give back to your community. When you put on the CBU and recreation department logo there is a certain standard you have to live up to. You have to go above and beyond, you have to act accordingly, and you have to bring it every day. So, the partnership with them is great. Every lead we have had has elevated the program and it would not be nearly as successful without having those students involved, that's for sure."
By employing members of staff directly from CBU's renowned Sport and Physical Activity Leadership (SPAL) program, Capers in the Community has not only managed to secure the cream of the crop in terms of local coaching and teaching talent but they have also demonstrated their commitment to future community leaders. The program also boasts a number of current and former student-athletes who have won national honours with CBU, representing tangible examples of success for the next generation. The hiring of these 12 members of staff during a precarious economic climate is further evidence of the CBRM's commitment to providing better opportunities for both students and members of the community according to Kirk Durning.
"One of the important components of our program is providing experience in terms of hiring qualified staff and people who are going to gain experience for their future work and endeavours. We take that really seriously in terms of building leadership skills and making sure they have the proper training to do that. SPAL and CBU have prepared a lot of those folks who are coming in for those roles, so, it's made things a lot easier in that aspect. The key for us is that we want to be, as a department, providing opportunities to build capacity locally within the field. We think that the recreation department has a key role to play in that. That hasn't always been the case in terms of hiring students but we're really moving in that direction. We think that results in us being able to provide a better service to the community, as well as better-qualified people in these roles."
With the program now having been extended into the fall and winter months, it is recommended for anyone who is interested to follow the Capers in the Community Facebook page for registration information, updates and all the latest pictures and videos from around the island. For CBU Men's Soccer Head Coach, Deano Morley, the extension of this program offers those in the surrounding area the perfect opportunity to get back outside and get back to enjoying sport.
"Don't miss it. This is incredible, free, quality programming. You are going to have one of the best times. It's interactive, it's fun, it's high energy. You've got great leaders there, so, come out and make the most of these great programs. Follow us so you can see what's going to happen in the winter, next spring and next summer. COVID is going to be over at some point, we're going to come out of this stronger, but we need to stay healthy and these programs will help us do it."
This rallying call that has already been answered by over 1,000 members of the community. If you would like information on how to register for future programs please visit www.facebook.com/capersinthecommunity to find out more.