How 4 sub-Branches championed the RSL NSW Sport & Recreation Program in 2023

How the RSL NSW Sport & Recreation Program has helped RSL sub-Branches build meaningful connections between veterans and family members, and grow their membership.

By the numbers:

As part of the RSL NSW Sport & Recreation Program in 2023:

  • More than 600 events were held
  • More than 1,000 participants joined the activities
  • There was a 243 per cent increase in registrations compared to the previous year
  • There was a 398 per cent increase in the number of activities organised

The RSL NSW Sport & Recreation Program began last year as a pilot program in two district councils with only 14 sub-Branches. It has fast become a statewide institution that’s touched the lives of more than 1,000 people and counting – veterans of all ages and their families.

The program was designed to encourage RSL NSW members to socialise and have fun, and to enhance the wellbeing of all veterans and their family members.

Program Coordinator Jen Reynolds leads the initiative, which provides infrastructure, funding and promotion for events. The focus has become social activities of all kinds – whether it’s a coffee catch-up, a bowls game, a trivia night or an organised walk.

“The activity is a conduit for social connection,” she explains. “As long as you do something that’s going to translate to a few people, you’re going to have them connect with one another and come up with more ideas. And that’s the birthplace of an entire community.”

Here are four sub-Branches that have embraced the program in 2023.

Austinmer-Thirroul

Even on the micro-scale, in activities with only a few members, the program is making a difference.

Warren Helson, former Army Reservist and retired school principal, had played golf and bowls before, but in his own words without much “exuberance”. So when a brochure went around from the Austinmer-Thirroul RSL sub-Branch offering activities, organised by the City of Wollongong RSL sub-Branch, as part of the Sport & Recreation Program, the 78-year-old homed in on an activity he’d never done – gym training.

After an initial meeting scoped out his capabilities, he began doing two sessions a week, one individual session based on strength and a group session focused on flexibility and fitness.

“I wanted to get a little bit fitter and a little less fatter,” says Helson. “Now, some of the blokes at the gym have muscles on muscles, and I still have more fat on fat, but a little muscle is coming through.”

Helson says he’s felt his balance improve and he can do things he couldn’t before. But the best change might not be physical.

We often refer to retirement as the ‘golden years’, despite knowing that this time can be hard, if not harder, than the rest of our lives. Our bodies break down, but we’re also hardly immune from feelings of isolation and directionlessness.

When Helson first signed up, he wasn’t in the best place.

“I was a bit down,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Where am I going to?’”

The gym sessions gave him something to look forward to, even as further troubles visited his life.

“It’s made me feel a bit better within myself,” says Helson. “It’s given me more of an interest in talking to people and getting out.”

Helson has now become a champion of the program, encouraging other older RSL members to take part and going so far as to email the City of Wollongong RSL sub-Branch Treasurer and Honorary Secretary Peter Lipscomb.

“We had a fellow about Warren’s age in our sub-Branch getting involved too,” says Lipscomb. “Getting these older men along and into the gym and getting their core strength up – who knows, we could be saving a few lives.”

City of Wollongong

Where sub-Branches often struggle is not with older members, but in attracting the young. The program has helped turn that around in Wollongong.

Lipscomb explains that six years ago a veteran from the war in Afghanistan joined the RSL – which at that time involved little more than a monthly meeting. The man, disillusioned, never came back.

“But once he saw the Sport & Recreation Program and the direction we were going in, he rejoined the sub-Branch,” he says. “Now he does all our social media.”

Lipscomb says one key to Wollongong’s success with the program – it has organised several larger events which have attracted upwards of 50 attendees – is by reaching out to other sub-Branches and existing community events.

“We already had associations with clubs that had their own things running,” he says. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so we saw how we could collaborate with them.” 

Some of the highlight events have been a fishing competition, a family barefoot bowls day, and a corporate golf day where the sub-Branch donated almost $30,000 to RSL LifeCare Veteran Services.

Mascot

Rachael Cosgrove, President of the Defence LGBTI Information Service and member of the Mascot RSL sub-Branch, says she can feel the difference the program and other RSL initiatives are having.

“There’s a new attitude and belief within RSL NSW encouraging us to deliver back to the community and bring the community together,” she says. “It allows the art of the possible to be explored with just a little work and effort.”

To that end, Mascot has focused on providing events on weekends that cater towards those with full-time jobs and younger families. One recent event was particularly family-friendly.

“We turned what might have once been a couple of hours’ get-together into a day with lawn bowls, jumping castles and face-painting for the kids,” explains Cosgrove. “The RSL Club assisted us with a deal where kids eat free with an adult purchase.”

Cosgrove was gratified to see that the descendants of veterans came out on the day, as they’re the kind of people she believes should be embraced in the wider RSL community.

“My opinion is that we need to be less restrictive – to not say if you’re not a veteran you can’t come to these things. I’m more of the mind that if, say, your uncle was a veteran, you can absolutely come, because your stories are going to be our stories as well.”

Cosgrove says it’s very easy for sub-Branches to get into a business-as-usual mindset with simple meetings and big yearly services. To overcome that, Mascot has plans to engage with the community.

“A local school has its 140th birthday coming up, and we’re going to have a stand there, because we have veterans’ families at the school,” she says.

Botany

President of Botany RSL sub-Branch Cain Slater has been involved in the program from its early days. He says the district’s many sub-Branches have managed to organise more than a few combined activities. With over 80 per cent of members being over 80, mid-week events have been crucial.

“When I hear stories about them at the monthly meetings, you witness the comradeship and how they are able to connect with people they might not have seen for years,” he says. “That’s been especially important since COVID, because we have a lot of members that stayed at home and didn’t engage with society.”

Slater says that while there’s competitiveness in some of the sports events such as lawn bowls, like other sub-Branches they’ve leaned into the social side of things.

“When we launched, we had a tour of a local brewery called One Drop Brewing Co. It was a Wednesday night, so we weren’t sure what the response would be when registrations went out. But we had people come from all over the eastern suburbs.”

Slater later learned there was some prevarication among some younger veterans.

“They saw the social media post and were umming and ahhing, and saying, ‘What are they trying to sell?’” he says. “After the event, they were pleasantly surprised. We just wanted to get veterans out and veterans together.”

One partner of a veteran told him that she had tried for a long time to get him to go to the coffee club organised within the program. When she finally convinced him, the change was tremendous.

“Just being around other people has really gotten him out of his shell. He’s going back out, he’s going to the shops, and he can’t wait to participate in other events.”

Such stories are the tip of the iceberg. From older veterans treasuring the ability to connect and tell stories with younger veterans, to veterans’ kids being taken to the Kokoda Track Memorial Pathway, the program has created communities within communities.

“The feedback,” says Slater, “has been about how wonderful it’s been to come out in a safe space with their families and partners and be part of something.”

A version of this article was published in the December 2023 issue of the Reveille magazine.

Find out how five other sub-Branches are embracing the RSL NSW Sport and Recreation Program.

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