The Gingercloud Foundation

Changing the rules to change a life

Last month, Max Elliott started work experience at the Ruggers restaurant attached to the Brothers Rugby Union club in Brisbane. Max will be 17 in April and has spent a fair deal of teenage years at the club. He knows the club pretty well: it’s down the hill from his home and he’s played a lot of rugby there. But it’s not rugby as many players know it and Max is not your average teenager.

Max Elliot at Brothers Rugby Union club
Max was a delightful baby according to his mum Megan, until he was about two and a half. After that, some issues started to emerge and they became so profoundly challenging, that Megan describes it as “a devastating fog’’ that descended on her, husband Anthony and Max’s younger sister Lara. Max was non-verbal and the noises he made – let alone the frustration he felt – were imbued with a deep anxiety and anger. Noises at night – wind on windows, leaves on rooves – would agitate Max and interrupt everyone in the house’s sleep. Bright lights would distress him. The family shutdown at a time when all the social elements of shared experiences between schoolmates and their parents were just about to get started. Max never went to a friend’s home and they never came to his. Sport where parents often bond over watching their children learn a game’s rules and develop their skills didn’t happen.
 
After numerous trips to medical specialists and a range of misdiagnoses, Max was finally identified as having Autism Spectrum disorder with a language disability. The family hired a speech pathologist and embarked on finding ways to help make Max’s life more inclusive. “Putting the right name to Max’s disability has helped us deal with it,’’ Megan explains.
 
But the critical element had yet to emerge. When it came, it would provide a profound new way of social inclusion, where a person’s disability was no impediment to a safe, physical sporting experience. And for Max, it all happened at Brothers Rugby Union club. But it was not conventional rugby – instead, it was a modified rules program that enabled Max, and in the intervening years, hundreds of other kids dealing with similar issues, to find something special in rugby that helped transform their lives. Last year, the organisation Megan established to promote social inclusion through sport – the GingerCloud Foundation – won the 2018 Play By The Rules award, conferred by the Human Right Commissioner for Children Megan Mitchell. It is just part of the extensive recognition for Modified Rugby Program (MRP) that has steadily grown to five cities and two states since it was introduced in 2014. Critical to its growth has been the endorsement of Rugby Australia – GingerCloud is an official partner – and the support of former rugby greats Queenslanders Nathan Sharpe, Tim Horan, Stephen Moore and current player Andrew Ready who have been regulars at the clubs, working closely with the kids.
 
The path to this outcome though has been fraught and challenging. There were missteps and confusion, frustration and disappointment.

“We’d always been open with everyone about Max’s situation,’’ Megan says. “We met the next person and they’d suggest something else or someone else to talk to. It wasn’t a straight line. Sometimes it was one step forward, two steps back. But we were always trying to move forward, to get some momentum.’’

Settling on what the modified rules themselves was typical of the journey. Not only were there changes to the size of the playing field and the balls, there also needed to be changes to tackling, a fundamental part of rugby. Max, and many who have the same condition, are highly sensory and touching can be difficult for them. So how do you get around that? One thing became clear – Max wasn’t keen on throwing the ball around with grown-ups. Put a teenager in to the mix and suddenly Max wanted to play. Out of this came the PlayerMentor model that puts an able-bodied person alongside the player who has learning and perceptual disabilities. GingerCloud provides the training for the mentors to understand what’s required in their new role and they are paired with an age-appropriate player. The unintended upside of the mentor side of the GingerCloud program is that some Brisbane employers have told Megan that when they see job applicants include ‘GingerCloud mentor’ on their resume, they hire them because it is evidence of the job seeker’s maturity and emotional intelligence.

The question for Megan has always been trying to find ways to build capacity for social inclusion. The GingerCloud modified rules model is suitable for boys, girls and young adults but it has evolved in response to, initially Max’s circumstance, and the recognition that there were many just like him. Whilst government may direct communities to be more inclusive, authentic inclusion only happens organically. “You can’t make policy for inclusion,’’ Megan says. “It happens when people create a connection and you get a true ripple effect.’’ Or to put it another way: “Unless we normalize disability, we cannot get true inclusivity.’’

Max working at Ruggers restaurant attached to the BRUC

Other sporting codes have approached GingerCloud with a view towards developing a version of modified rules for their own game. That might happen, or it could even be adapted to teaching other activities like music. For the time being, the foundation is trying to raise funds to continue the program’s expansion. There has been some Federal government support and the arrival of the NDIS has also added another layer of help. By 2022, its forecast that there will be more than 500 Modified Rugby Program (MRP) players down the east coast of Australia. 

Closer to home, Max will spend his work experience doing two things he loves, according to him mum - cooking and eating.  Max will learn how to make his favourite food – pizza- prepare other people’s food and set the restaurant tables for lunches and dinners. “Max can be anywhere at the club and be safe and happy,’’ Megan says. Its sounds like a relief but it is also so much more than that.

Become a member!

Our mission is more and better philanthropy. Be part of the journey.

Join now

Foundation Maps: Australia

Do you want to know who is funding what and where across Australia?

Learn more