Reflecting on the power of connection through volunteering, as Heather preps for the Invictus Games Dusseldorf 2023
Working at Newcastle University as an Associate Professor in Education, Heather Sharp knows a thing or two about historical conflict, the topic being the core of her research work. Every year she takes students on an international study tour to visit former battle sites in France and Belgium, but this year’s journey will have something extra in store for Heather not connected to conflict, but camaraderie – a week of volunteering at the Invictus Games 2023 in Dusseldorf.
Having experienced the incredible atmosphere of Invictus in 2018 at the Sydney Games, Heather is excited to be getting back into the mix, meeting the other volunteers and again witnessing the amazing courage and commitment from the competitors.
“I’ll never forget watching an American former serviceman, Tim Payne, who had been ambushed during his service and lost use of one arm, lost both his legs and was in a coma for a long time. I took two of my children to watch an event and unbeknown to me, Tim’s mum and stepdad were sitting beside us. Listening to their story was amazing. Connecting the athlete with his family was incredible as was witnessing humans stretching themselves to the limit.”
No stranger to the military world or volunteering, Heather is married to a current serving member of the Australian Defence Force. It was through witnessing him throughout his career that Heather became interested in learning more about the Invictus spirit.
“My husband has been in active service, as have many of his mates and I have seen some of the impacts of those experiences. I believe in the Invictus ideal of supporting injured and returned service people to recuperate through activities and to honour the rehab and effort they go through to compete at the Games.”
Heather’s volunteering experiences began in her childhood, supporting severely disabled children at a group home during school holidays. With her sisters she raised money for the RSPCA running fetes and then later on, while working as a school teacher, Heather volunteered on weekends for LifeLine shops in Queensland and the YMCA in Brisbane. She currently volunteers for the Raymond Terrace Historical Society.
“I have a philosophical opinion that it’s important to belong to your community and contribute to it in any way that you can. Whatever that community is – local, state, national, international. It gives me a sense of purpose, that I’m part of a community.”
At the moment Heather is engaged with another project spearheaded by Invictus Australia that focuses on community engagement beyond the Games, in partnership with the Department of Education NSW. It involves developing educational resources to share with primary school staff, to further educate kids about our Defence community. Working in collaboration with Defence School Mentor, Yvonne Fletcher, they hope to launch the materials in August, during Education Week.
“We are wanting able bodied students to play sports like wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball so they can get a first-hand experience of them, and build their empathy. That’s largely the focus of what we are creating. I’m really excited about it.”
Heather is also very excited about the Games in Dusseldorf this year, but it’s clear that she also recognises the importance of the work of Invictus Australia outside of the Games.
“Veterans and their families getting involved in local events can make such a huge impact on them personally. I’m a big believer in the power of organised activities that bring people together and create a sense of belonging, which supports recovery. It’s shown to work.”
Reflecting on how sport has historically supported the breaking down of barriers and offered connection, Heather notes that one of the sites she and her students will visit on their study tour is in Belgium, where a 1914 Christmas truce took place during the first World War. German and British troops were in the trenches, when a soldier started singing ‘Silent Night’. Others soon joined in from both sides and a significant shift occurred.
“One of the soldiers brought out a soccer ball. The troops called an unofficial ceasefire and started playing together. A couple of days later they were back to battle, but after this spontaneous game, having connected with each other, they refused to shoot properly, not wanting to hurt each other. The officers soon realised what was going on and rotated the troops, but it truly goes to show the power of sport enabling connection and camaraderie.”
Words by: Lisa Carlberg
About Invictus Australia: Invictus Australia encourages veterans and their families to connect and engage with their communities through sport. Whether participating or volunteering at grassroots level, to competing internationally at an Invictus or Warrior Games, Invictus Australia leverages the power of sport to proactively foster good health and aid in recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration. Invictus Australia promotes the physical, social and emotional benefits of sport for all, and shine a light on the unique needs of younger veterans, particularly the challenges associated with transitioning from military to civilian life.
About the Invictus Games: The next Invictus Games will take place from the 9th – 16th September, 2023 in Dusseldorf Germany. Invictus Australia, in partnership with the Australian Defence Force, will support 31 former and current serving competitors as part of Team Australia. The Invictus Games is an international adaptive sporting event for serving and former serving military personnel who have been wounded, injured or become ill during their military service. Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex, is the Patron of the Invictus Games. The Games uses the healing power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and celebrate the crucial role played by family and friends.
If you would like to support Amar’s work with Turbans 4 Australia with their food relief program, they are welcoming volunteers to assist with packing and distributing food hampers at their Sydney branch in Clyde and Melbourne branch in Thomastown. For further details, please visit the Turbans 4 Australia website.