As a passionate physical education teacher, Rhéal Hébert is deeply committed to responding to the needs of every single one of his students. So when he saw that his students were limited in the number of sports they were exposed to and lacked the equipment they needed to fully participate, he decided to do something about it.
“I was inspired by one of my students, who is one of the best athletes I’ve ever taught. We were playing volleyball during a phys ed class one day and I was watching her play, thinking ‘She could be on Team NB, she’s that good!’ But one of the challenges is that we’re a small school so even if I had kids who would want to play volleyball, I couldn’t get a team together for her to play on,” remembers Rhéal. “As a phys ed teacher, I felt like I was missing something. I know I have students who want to play, I know I have good athletes, but I can’t help them reach their potential. So that’s where the idea of an afterschool program came from. I didn’t want any more kids to fall through the cracks.”
With the tremendous support of his school board, Rhéal mobilized his community, his colleagues and several sponsors to be able to implement an innovative project. That’s when Bon départ Sports Plus was born! This afterschool program brings in experts from the community to teach students new sports throughout the year in eight-week blocks. They are clinic style so the kids play and practice techniques without needing to be part of an official school team. “We find the best experts we can and change up the sports so the students can experience a sport they wouldn’t have access to any other way.” The program is also built on a schedule that fits well for most families. The program starts with an hour of structured supervision (recess, snack, and homework) and then moves on to the sport component. By the time the kids are done for the day, most parents are done with their regular workday and can come pick them up.
Rhéal is committed to making sure that all students can participate, regardless of their parents’ financial means, and that all students, regardless of abilities, are included. “But then…picture this: I’m a physical education teacher. I have built a program for my students to be more active and it’s having great success. But then I would look around and see two of my students, who live with muscular dystrophy and are in wheelchairs, having to watch their friends playing and having fun while they’re being wheeled around by the teachers’ assistants. I felt like something was still missing,” Rhéal recalls. So, with the same unwavering dedication, Rhéal raised funds to be able to get multisport wheelchairs and sledges for these two girls to be able to join in. He also turned this challenge into a learning experience for all the students by getting in touch with Para New Brunswick and borrowing enough equipment through their Equipment Loan Service so that the whole group could try out various parasports as well. Rhéal saw how this helped his students to better understand their friends’ reality and how to be more inclusive. Parasports became so popular that now a whole section of Bon départ Sports Plus is dedicated to parasports.
As time passed, the word spread. Rhéal was approached by parents from two other schools, whose children also had a disability, about expanding the program and its parasports component. Rhéal knew it would be hard to have enough equipment available to run the parasports program in three different schools but had seen what it had done for his two students. One in particular had always been shy and reserved but by the following year, her confidence had grown and she had even been elected school president. So Rhéal got together with a group of passionate supporters and applied for a national contest that could have provided them with enough funds to buy as much equipment as they needed. Even though Bon départ Sports Plus had made it to the finals of the competition and Rhéal’s team was successful in raising tons of awareness around the initiative, they didn’t win the grand prize. “When we heard the news I was sitting next to my wife, feeling totally defeated, when she said, ‘So, what are we going to do now?’ I said, ‘What do you mean what are we going to do…? We lost!’ She said, ‘I know you Rhéal. You won’t stop there. So tell me, what are we doing from here on?’ I smiled and said, ‘Thanks, I needed that’.”
With the help of his group, they mobilized the whole region in a massive fundraising effort. They set a goal to raise $50,000 in 50 days, and finish the campaign off with a 50 km relay race. They raised no less than $62,000! In the fall of 2015, the group unveiled their new equipment: 18 multisports wheelchairs, 10 sledges and 4 handy-cycles. “There is a lot more awareness around parasports now,” notes Rhéal. “The students of Louis-J.-Robichaud School in Shediac even organized their own sledge-hockey tournament.”
Bon départ Sports Plus has been a great success, engaging the community at large and expanding to eight schools! “It wouldn’t have been possible without so many partnerships,” adds Rhéal. “I have to thank all those people who have really stepped up and supported the program.”
Rhéal’s deep commitment to participation and inclusion has now enriched the lives of over 1,000 students and counting. And his hard work has been recognized both regionally and nationally. Rhéal was named teacher of the year by the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick (AEFNB) for 2014-15 and also received an Excellence in Education Award from the Department Education and Early Childhood Development. Ability New Brunswick honoured him with its Parasport and Recreation Award. And he was even recognized nationally with a National Inclusive Education award and the provincial newspaper L’Étoile named him Personality of the Year in 2015!
Despite all the accolades, Rhéal remains humble. “You don’t become a teacher for recognition, but it’s nice to have the work recognized.” For him, the greatest reward is seeing so many of his students being more physically active and having access to a variety of sports and activities that they may never have had the opportunity to try. This is sport at its best… exploring potential while bringing everyone together. Rhéal sees this as the perfect win-win situation!