A Greater Southern Region club mum and a small Western Region club, both committed to fighting mental illness and suicide prevention in their local communities, have claimed the major awards in the 2020 NSWRL Volunteer of the Year honours.
The annual awards recognise the invaluable contribution made by almost 25,000 people who give up their time as volunteers, officials, coaches and referees to ensure NSWRL is able to run Community Football at more than 700 clubs across the state. The awards also acknowledge the support given in the wider community as well as to the Rugby League community.
The Kiama Knights JRLFC Secretary and Assistant Treasurer Kristine Laird has been chosen from the 10 regional winners as the NSWRL “Gordon Lowrie” Volunteer of the Year, while the Lithgow Bears RLFC (pictured above) won the coveted NSWRL Grassroots Club of the Year award in a challenging year severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed the community football season start, as well as the devastating bushfires in the pre-season.
Kristine, who is also the Club’s Social Media Manager, Photographer and a Committee member, committed more than 30 hours a week to do “everything in her power” to ensure her club would be able to take the field when competitions resumed in 2020.
“Our Club registrations are up 172 per cent since 2017 and this is largely because of Kristine’s involvement and massive amount of work that she completes day in and day out,” said Kiama Knights Club President Carl Middleton.
She also took the lead on an initiative for the welfare of the players and to assist the community in a positive way involving the Mental Health Movement with local and former NRL player Ashton Sims following multiple suicides in the community.
“It starts a conversation, where previously suicides were taboo and hardly talked about. Our kids are being encouraged to talk to parents and are being provided resources that can assist,” Middleton said.
Rugby League prides itself on community spirit, not just within the Club environment but the wider community as shown by Kristine and also the Lithgow Bears RLF which secured the Grassroots Club of the Year Award off the back of their tireless efforts to support the local community throughout the bushfires which ravaged their area, overcoming the challenges of COVID-19 and their mental health and suicide prevention work.
Lithgow Bears RLFC Secretary Lauren Stevens said the Club, with a modest membership of 60, provided drinks, food and hand sanitiser to RFS crews; provided their facilities (to shower) for families who lost their homes; and had their fields turned into a recovery centre for animals and people who had to escape their homes.
“This award means so much after the year we’ve had with the bushfires at the beginning of the year, then COVID came along,” she said.
“It feels like we haven’t had a break. Everyone pulled together and we managed to get a competition together with seven male and seven female teams.”
Since the competition returned after the COVID-delayed start, the Bears successfully managed to register more than 50 players in the Mid-West Cup competitions and kept every member of their club active during the COVID-19 lockdown offering at home training programs, zoom gym sessions and support for those in need especially with mental health.
Lauren said the Club was part of a tightknit community and the loss of two young players to suicide two years ago had been the key driver for their ongoing commitment to the fight against mental illness and suicide prevention. This has been achieved through involvement with the annual Lithgow Walk n Talk, Memorial Shield game and fundraisers, as well as a special program for young girls in disability homes to play a modified version of the game.
“Because we are a small town, everyone is involved in footy in some way and the club is touched by what happens in the community,” she said.
“We lost five houses in the town and on the outskirts during the bushfires; and one of our female coaches almost lost her house while she was helping to fight the bushfires. We opened up the club facilities to evacuees and firefighters and the fields were used as a recovery centre for animals, mainly horses.”
Other major awards determined include the Women in League Award, won by Erina Junior Rugby League Club’s Kylie Morrison, who has played a major role ensuring the success of Girl’s Tackle Competitions on the Central Coast; and the Inclusive Volunteer of the Year Award, won by Luke Davis of Wentworthville United, who has coached Try Time, a competition for the Intellectually Disabled, for more than seven years. He has also coached his team in both Rugby League and social skills to assist his players in their communities.
The Indigenous Volunteer of the Year Award went to Faith Perryman, from Como Jannali, who has acted as a leader in working with a local Indigenous community group, homing children aged 12 to 18 from across regional NSW. She has been instrumental in building relationships and assisting with their integration in the Club and community, creating a formal position at Como Jannali for an Indigenous Liaison Officer to support and mentor the youth.
Tumut’s Jon Burgin was named Coach of the Year (Male), for the work he did to help his team through the unfortunate passing of a young player, making himself available day or night to support the U18 side, and travelling 45mins from Tumbarumba twice weekly; while Lubna Eter, from Greenacre Tigers, was named Coach of the Year (Female) for going above and beyond in her efforts with her team on and off the field.
Chris Nightingale, of Canberra District Rugby League Referees in the Western Region, won the “Dennis Braybrook” NSWRL Referees Association Award, dedicating much of his life to officiating. Chris began his Rugby League journey in 1974 at the age of 14 and now spends most of his time mentoring young referees right across the district.
NSWRL Chief Executive David Trodden congratulated the winners of the NSWRL Volunteer of the Year awards and thanked all volunteers across the state for their invaluable contribution to the game, especially in the challenging environment facing everyone in 2020 throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as through the bushfires and droughts that have also taken their toll on our Rugby League communities.
“2020 has been a year like no other, and the resilience, patience, flexibility and unwavering commitment of our volunteers to make sure the game went on, is something we at NSWRL are very grateful for. Without our volunteers there is no game,” Trodden said.
“To the winners of our 2020 awards, congratulations. While we have not been able to recognise everyone at a special function this year because of COVID, the sentiment is the same and we are especially indebted to you for your extra efforts this season, going above and beyond in difficult circumstances.”
NSWRL Volunteer of the Year Award Winners
NSWRL Grassroots Club of the Year – Lithgow Bears JRLFC
NSWRL “Gordon Lowrie” Volunteer of the Year Award – Kristine Laird, Kiama Knights JRLFC
NSWRL Women in League Award – Kylie Morrison, Erina Junior Rugby League Football Club
NSWRL Indigenous Volunteer of the Year – Faith Perryman, Como Jannali JRLFC
NSWRL Inclusive Volunteer of the Year – Luke Davis, Wentworthville United JRLC
NSWRL Coach of the Year Male – Jon Burgun, Tumut Blues
NSWRL Coach of the Year Female – Lubna Eter, Bankstown Sports Club
“Dennis Braybrook” NSWRL Referees Association Award (NSWRLRA) – Chris Nightingale
Regional Volunteer of the Year winners (overall winner chosen from this list)
Volunteer of the Year Bidgee Region – Kai Steele, Harden Junior League
Volunteer of the Year East Coast Region - Warren Blissett, Group 3 Juniors and Seniors
Volunteer of the Year Greater Northern Region – Jimmy Tanner, Armidale and District Junior Rugby League
Volunteer of the Year Greater Southern Region – Kristine Laird, Kiama Knights JRLFC
Volunteer of the Year Newcastle/Central Coast – Kylie Morrison, Erina Junior Rugby League Football Club
Volunteer of the Year Sydney East Region – Deborah Kennedy, Belrose Eagles Rugby League Football Club
Volunteer of the Year Sydney North Region – Craig McLaren, Greystanes Devils JRLC
Volunteer of the Year Sydney South Region – Georgina Israel, Maroubra Lions Rugby League Football Club
Volunteer of the Year Sydney West Region – Jeff Barrington, Minto Cobras JRLFC
Volunteer of the Year Western Region – Jason Greenhalgh, Bloomfield Juniors