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Volunteer Champion - Anto Finnegan

05 June 2015

Anto Finnegan was the guest speaker at the 2015 Irish News GAA Club & Volunteer Awards. Anto's presentation at that event was inspirational, his story is perfect for Volunteers Week, Anto is a volunteer champion.

Anto is a sportsman; his GAA club is St Pauls in Belfast. He previously played Gaelic Football for Antrim for 11 years and was Captain on two occasions, he also played for Antrim Hurlers for a couple of seasons.  In 2012 Anto was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND).  Heroically Anto and his wife Alison set aside their own personal challenges with this news and set about raising awareness and raising funds for research into the condition, they established the website www.deterMND.com.  In May of this year they were able to donate 30,000 euro to help further the fight against this diseasehttps://www.projectmine.com/country/ireland/.  At the Irish News GAA Club & Volunteer Awards event Anto was given a special recognition award from Ulster GAA President, Martin McAviney, and Editor of the Irish News, Noel Doran. Well deserved recognition.

Take time to read what Anto has to say about himself, the GAA and volunteers, he writes with honesty and with humour.

Presentation at 2015 Irish News GAA Club & Volunteer Awards by Anto Finnegan, guest speaker.

Good afternoon everyone, firstly thank you to John and the Irish News Team for the invite to speak to you today.  It is great to see such a wide range of schools and voluntary groups gathered here to celebrate the great work you do.  The role you play in helping to shape the lives of young people in particular cannot be recognised enough.

I grew up in the heart of West Belfast in the Lenadoon estate through the 70s and 80s, where stolen cars and other anti-social activity were a regular nightly occurrence.  Many young people whom I knew very well, unfortunately fell into the wrong crowds, through either peer pressure or lack of guidance, ending up in trouble with the police.  A number of them did not live to see adulthood.  I'm sure this is a similar story in many housing estates across Northern Ireland.  However, for every young person who  took this path there were 25 to 30 who chose differently. They chose sport, they chose music, they chose academia.

And the common denominator?

YOU - Teachers prepared to offer extra academic guidance, take extra curricular school activities in sport, music, drama.

AND YOU - Community and sporting volunteers, prepared to open and organise youth clubs, camping trips, sports training, fostering cross community relationships.

Parents and the wider family unit help shape the values we want to see in all our children, but once they step outside that front door into world of peer and social pressure, it is the teachers, the community workers and the sports volunteers who pick up the baton, steering them away from trouble and helping them focus on activities that may challenge them but will ultimately enrich them.

A recent study by Indiana State University on the impact of Athletic participation on exam scores and graduation rates concluded that:

Involvement in extracurricular activities, specifically sport, has been related to better cognitive functioning in children (attention and working memory) and greater outcomes academically including higher grades, test scores, engagement in school, satisfaction with school, aspirations and rates for attending college, as well as lower absenteeism and drop out rates. 

Just a little aside. I had only one bad experience that I can think of while been involved in extra curricular activity and that's was as a scrawny little first year in 1986. It's the first year (year 8) inter class Gaelic Football tournament. 1C (my class) are playing 1D for their right to play 1B in the final. I was playing half-back, a position I would end up playing most of my life, and things were going really well. We were up by a couple of points and just about to start the second half, when I felt my ear getting pulled hard. Thinking it was one of my teammates messing around, I tried to shrug the perpetrator off but the grip was like a vice, then the voice came 'Mr. Finnegan, into my office now'.  It was my first year PE teacher and I knew the game was up. You see, a week or so before I had a plaster removed from my left leg and been told by a consultant not to play sports for six months due to fluid causing severe swelling in my knee.  Little did I know that my mom had informed the PE teachers in the school about my injury!  I was in tears walking to the office, not with the pain in my ear, because I was not allowed to play. I tried to scare the teacher by saying I was telling my parents about him pulling my ear, only to be shot down again when he informed me he had direct instructions from them to stop me playing sport by any means necessary. I then had the indignation of him phoning my mom and informing her, my mom politely thanked him and I knew my goose was definitely cooked!  Although a teacher wouldn't be allowed to grab a student today, I suppose you could say it was a great example of how parenting and schooling worked together for a positive experience. I didn't try to play anymore until my 6 months were up.

I have talked about the positive influence you as teachers and volunteers have on the individual (guiding them in the right direction etc), however there are many other positive outcomes that young people benefit from involvement with sport - improved self esteem; teamwork; problem solving and other life skills; plus friendships that last a lifetime.

When we organised the 'Game for Anto' GAA game at Kingspan Stadium, home of Ulster Rugby in November 2014 to raise funds for Motor Neurone Disease Research, supported by The Irish News and indeed O'Neills and Ulster GAA, all to whom we are eternally grateful, the organising committee was almost entirely made up of people I had met through playing sport, made possible by volunteers like you. They are the most unlikely group of people, from all walks of life,  who over years of training together, winning together and losing together have become close friends, prepared to give up their time freely to help others. They have taken the examples of the positive influencers they were fortunate to have learned from and are practically applying them. They are active in the schools they work in and the communities they live in, working to guide and inspire the next generation to be the best that they can be.

They are living proof that the work you do and the roles you play make a tangible, positive difference in society.

On a personal note teachers and volunteers just like you have helped shape me into the person I am today, I had never met a person from a different religious background until a group of likeminded community volunteers got together and organised and funded a cross community trip to America.  I was 12.  It helped me realise that all kids from Belfast were the same; and if they were all the same in Belfast, they must be the same everywhere, regardless of religion or colour.  A valuable lesson for a 12 year old.

You have helped equip me with the tools and techniques to deal with life's successes and challenges, in work, home and sport. Volunteers, your fingerprints are all over everything that is wonderful about this city, this country.

Finally, well done to all the awards finalists, enjoy your day and I am sure you will go from strength to strength.

Oh and just in case you were wondering -  my 1st year PE teacher became one of the key people who nurtured a love of sport and physical activity during my school life, a love I still carry with me and have hopefully began to instil in my children and the kids I've coached over the last 10 years.

Thank you

Anto & Alison Finnegan