The NRL is making use of both its player ambassadors and modern technology to take education and health messages to high school students it could not otherwise reach.
NRL.com last week sat in on a video link session in which the NRL's Learning with League manager Jessica McCartney and NRL and Souths Cares ambassador Nathan Merritt addressed Year 9 and 10 students from Tullamore and Forbes High Schools in western NSW about the importance of having a dream and how to work towards their goals and aspirations.
You might ordinarily expect two separate classrooms of adolescents to be largely restless in the final period before home time but in this instance the 14 and 15-year-olds were enraptured by the chance to interact with Rabbitohs legend Merritt while also taking in important messages about staying in school, getting an education and following your dreams.
Merritt regaled the students with stories of his playing days, his rapid progression through the junior grades and what is now keeping him busy in his post-playing career – such as his work as an ambassador both for the NRL and the Rabbitohs via Souths Cares, as well as school visits with an emphasis on raising awareness about domestic violence issues, and work with the Redfern AMS (Aboriginal Medical Service).
After addressing the students as part of a 45-minute video link session in which he answered a range of questions from 'who was your toughest opponent' to 'how did you pick yourself up during the tough times' (Manu Vatuvei and Akuila Uate; with the help of family and friends, were the answers), Merritt told NRL.com his passion for helping youth is a huge part of his drive for what he does these days.
"I'm very passionate about the youth of our area. I want to help them have dreams in life, follow their dreams and one day achieve their dreams," Merritt said.
"It would be great if I can be a part of that and help our kids and show them that anything's possible in life and you can achieve your dreams if you knuckle down and try hard."
After plenty of talks to high school groups, last week's video hook-up was Merritt's first using technology to beam himself into a classroom hundreds of kilometres away but he said regardless of whether it's face-to-face or via a stream, the students always seem to respond well.
"Every time I do something, the times I go to schools, the outcome is pretty good and the feedback you always get is positive which is a good thing, it means you've done your job well and kids are loving what you do," he said.
"It's very important to give back. Whenever I travel I always try to give my time to young kids and students and whatever knowledge I've got and whatever questions they have I try and answer them and give them an honest answer and just be open to them."
Macartney said the profile of NRL ambassadors can help make the messaging around health and education more relatable than it may otherwise be.
"These players are their heroes so if these guys can push those crucial health and education messages we're onto a winner," she said.
"For us it's really important because we're a national game to be able to give back to the country [areas] and still be a part of their programs without the expense and time of travel is really important to us."
The ambassadors using their profile and rugby league experiences can be a real drawcard for students, Macartney added.
"I can say something and it might not be that interesting but if Nathan says something their faces light up because they relate to them because they see them on TV so the involvement of the ambassadors is really crucial. And the ambassadors are really good, they're so open and honest about their stories and they answer the kids questions and they're a valuable component of everything we do," she said.
The Learning with League program has gone to a lot of schools in western NSW but also further afield, in particular to Victoria and WA in the two years it has been running, according to Macartney. Teachers can access the program through DART Connections, a NSW Department of Education project facilitating distance education.
"The aim of the program is to use the profile of the NRL, its players, it's ambassadors like Nathan and the game itself to push key education and health messages.
"We can deliver this program in person but when schools are remote or regional it means we can still engage with them and be a part of their classroom and their learning experience so we get the best of both worlds," she said.