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Thursday Island shows the spirituality in sport

In November 2019, 120 students at Thursday Island's Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Primary School kicked some goals for children in Ghana as part of their Socktober Event Day.

Spirituality in Sport on Thursday Island

Catholic Mission's iconic sockball found its way across the Torres Strait and into the hands of students on Thursday Island for their Socktober Event Day..

This ball has been around. It was made from recycled materials by four young Zambian men in a town four hours west of Chennai in southern India. It has since passed through Burmese and Cambodian hands and been kicked by Ghanaian and Filipino feet. It has endured the heat of Brisbane, braced the cold of a Melbourne winter, and found its home in Sydney.

In November 2019, the “sockball”, which has become the iconic symbol of Catholic Mission’s annual Socktober schools fundraising initiative, was taken north to Thursday Island, one of at least 274 that make up Australia’s Torres Strait Islands.

This was an environment quite unlike any other that this ball has visited. Strong winds rip through the Strait late in the year, catching all three flags—Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Australian—that proudly fly above the ferry terminal and serve both as a welcome and a reminder that this is the land of the First Peoples who are proud to call Australia home.

A short walk away is Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a true seaside chapel, complete with a stained-glass window brought all the way from Issoudun in France by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, who founded the parish.

Perched above it on the hill is the parish primary school, where a small cohort fills out kindergarten to year six. The seventeen students at the school’s campus on neighbouring Hammond Island take the total enrolment to just 120—making “Sacred Heart” one of the smallest and most remote Catholic schools in Australia. But while diminutive in number, the school showed throughout Socktober that it has a giant heart for global mission, raising a remarkable $1,800 for projects in Ghana and around the world.


Seven-year-old Donovan, a year two student at Sacred Heart, tossed the small and remarkably well-travelled sockball around in his hands as he nervously waited to film a message for children just like him in Ghana. The sun was setting on his school’s Socktober Event Day, where he and his classmates had slotted dozens of penalty goals to raise funds for children’s projects supported by Catholic Mission. The easiest ones, Donovan says, were kicked with the regular soccer ball, which was perfectly round and predictable. It was a lot tougher with the sockballs, which his class and others had made together by hand in the lead-up to their event day.

Donovan is the leading fundraiser this year for his school, which is no surprise given his early and keen interest in literally kicking some goals for kids in Africa. ‘I am raising money with my school for children in developing countries,’ he wrote on his fundraising page, which he set up with help from mum Jessika. ‘The reason why I am raising money for them is so that kids like me in these countries can have food and clean water.’

It is no mistake that soccer was chosen as the game that would drive Catholic Mission’s school’s engagement program. In the most remote parts of the world, you can almost certainly be assured of finding a child wearing an English or Spanish football club jersey. It is one of the few things that links children of all backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities and faiths. This is what Pope Francis had in mind when he launched Sport at the Service of Humanity in 2015, which the Washington Post describes as “a global movement that embraces the unique ability of faith and sport to promote positive values, unite people for good and celebrate our common humanity, regardless of culture or religious beliefs.”

“This is the moment when we can restore our faith in Faith, and belief in the values of Sport, as a metaphor for life.” – Pope Francis

Nowhere is this truer than on Thursday Island, a place steeped in richly diverse culture and storied history, in which everything is grounded. ‘I always teach my children to listen to elders who have walked the path before them,’ said Harriet Dorante, a teacher aide from Hammond Island whose daughter Becca rallied her to register. ‘They are the knowledge bank of our culture and tradition. They teach us moral values in life. They deserve to be honoured and respected.’

Majella Lynch-Harlow, Principal at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, says a unique spirituality flows through the people on Thursday Island. ‘Our community is a very diverse one, we have residents from all around Australia, and from different faith backgrounds, and we have our local Indigenous population as well. Religion and Christianity are really deep and strong here; it’s a very prayerful place. So, when we brought Socktober to this community, it was received very open-heartedly.

‘As soon as we connect a story with children to our local people, it becomes even stronger, because children are at the heart of this place.’

“Socktober” itself was an initiative launched in 2012, but it was only in 2018 that it took on the distinct flavour of the world game, with the program incorporating the popular penalty shootout concept that 52 Catholic schools in Australia took up in 2019. Students are registered with their school on the Socktober platform, and family and friends sponsor them to kick goals for kids. There is a prize for the highest fundraiser, and during the penalty shootout, students attain points for each goal they kick; one point for the regular synthetic ball, and double for the handmade sockballs.

It’s a straightforward program to implement, and while the funds raised benefit children and communities overseas, for Ms Lynch-Harlow, the impact on her own staff and students was crucial. ‘It’s a chance for our children to learn about Catholic Mission and come together in solidarity with people around the world,’ she says. ‘It’s really exciting seeing all of our children coming together and discovering and connecting with other children around the world. It also shows them how lucky we are here in Australia.’

She says despite the school’s impressive fundraising effort—well eclipsing its goal—the money was never the priority. ‘Because we are such a remote school … there is a lot of disadvantage here. So, we weren’t talking too much about fundraising; we were talking about awareness and solidarity. But when people started to hear the stories of what was happening overseas, they really got excited and engaged.’

Catholic Mission’s Community Engagement and Innovation Manager, Sonja Krivacic, says Thursday Island’s example is one that all of Australia can follow in 2020. ‘This is a small school community that has taken on a big challenge in sharing resources and building awareness of mission projects in Ghana,’ she said. ‘We are hugely impressed by the dedication of the students, and particularly their parents, who registered, and the wider community of family and friends who supported them. It’s a call to action for all Catholic schools to get involved and create their own impact.’

Looking back on the efforts of her school, Ms Harlow-Lynch says it shows that mission, like soccer, can be everyone’s game. ‘The fact that our children here have embraced Socktober so beautifully shows that this is what we are called to do as a Catholic school. We’re all the same right across the world, and I think it says a lot about our school and Catholic education that we are encouraged to reach out to people most in need.’

The symbolism of the worldly sockball in his hands was not lost on Donovan. His class had watched the Catholic Mission school appeal video and seen the children at the Nazareth Home in Ghana, over 15,000 kilometres away, kicking this very ball. Suddenly, Donovan was closer and more connected to them than he ever imagined.

When he realised that he was in possession of the same ball that had been held and kicked about by the very children he was supporting, Donovan’s eyes lit up in amazement. With an understanding beyond his seven years, the young boy looked down the camera and clearly and confidently delivered his message to unknown friends: ‘Hi, I’m Donovan, and today I kicked five goals for you.’

You can support the efforts of Donovan and his friends at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Primary School by contributing to their fundraising total. Head to socktober.org.au/OLSHThursdayIsland.