Erin Kennedy: “The power of the oval ball”
A Young Change-Maker (YCM) at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Singapore 2010, Erin Kennedy is now striving to empower and educate girls in the USA with her Girls Rugby Inc. initiative, with the help of the IOC’s worldwide YCM+ programme.
What is Girls Rugby Inc.?
“It is a project I co-founded in April 2018 with Jenn Heinrich and Hannah Harper, who I know from my career in rugby development and administration with USA Rugby, Rugby Canada and the North American Caribbean Rugby Association. In my work, it was easy to see that rugby programmes in America were growing rapidly for young players, but focusing primarily on boys. We looked at the numbers and, for the 2016/2017 registration season, there were only 1,055 girls registered through USA Rugby in the non-contact, flag rugby category. In 2017/18, there were just 1,079 girls. This number is incredibly low for a country the size of the United States, and we were determined to create a programme that would change that.”
When did your love of rugby begin?
“I started playing nine years ago at the age of 24, and played for the women’s team in Boulder in Colorado. I soon started coaching and working with teams of all levels. I think the thing that has kept me in the rugby world over the years has been the culture. I grew up playing basketball and softball, but I’ve never been connected to a community like I am with rugby. The game has this amazing ability to teach you the skills that you need, not just on the field but off the field as well. I love that it is a sport for everyone, and I have friends and connections all over the world because of this game.”
What are your aspirations for Girls Rugby Inc.?
“We want to create an ongoing programme that empowers girls to reach their potential through rugby, offering a values-based curriculum. We want to give girls the chance to have a great experience in sport in an environment where they feel comfortable and can learn and grow. Girls Rugby Inc. has seven foundational values – we call them ‘L.E.A.D.E.R.S’. They are leadership, empowerment, achievement, development, enjoyment, respect and sportsmanship. We integrate these values into our curriculum, and try and teach them life lessons on and off the field.”
Why did you approach the IOC to become part of the YCM+ programme?
“I worked for the IOC on a short-term contract between 2015 and 2016. I helped coordinate the YCM programme for the Winter YOG Lillehammer 2016, and I saw first-hand the positive impact on social change that the YCM+ programme could make through sport. After Lillehammer, I piloted a girls’ flag rugby initiative in Ohio, and it was the next obvious step to apply to the IOC for a grant in 2018 to help get Girls Rugby Inc. off the ground.”
What progress have you made with the project?
“We delivered our first flag rugby programmes for girls aged between six and 14 in 2018 in Denver, Portland and San Diego. We had 120 girls across the three locations, and 80 per cent of them were new to the game. This year, we held spring camps in San Diego and Denver, and launched in Columbus for the first time. Longer term, we hope to double the number of girls playing flag rugby in the United States from 1,055 to more than 2,000.”
What feedback have you received so far?
“After our first three programmes last year, 92 per cent of the parents felt that Girls Rugby Inc. had made their daughters more confident, while 91 per cent of the girls said it had made them better team players. On a more practical level, we have seen the girls really embrace the core values we’ve tried to instil. For example, one group learned about respect and, when the girls returned to camp for game day, they explained how they were being respectful in their lives. A young player, aged eight, told a story about how she saw a girl in school being bullied and decided to stand up for her because she wasn’t being respected. This powerful story is one of many of how this programme gives the girls positive skills to become strong young women.”
How has Panasonic’s involvement helped Girls Rugby Inc.?
“Panasonic’s partnership with the IOC on the YCM+ programme is incredibly valuable. The funding and support that we received was really important in getting our programmes up and running, and allowing us to bring the game of rugby to more girls in the US.”