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Lithgow Bears named NRL Grassroots Club of the Year

They only have about 50 players, but the community impact of the Lithgow Bears cannot be overstated.

The Bears have been named the ClubsNSW NRL Grassroots Club of the Year as part of the Kayo NRL Community Awards 2020.

Like many clubs, Lithgow - based in western NSW - had to navigate enormous and unprecedented challenges over the past 12 months including bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

That the Bears, who fielded a men's team as well as a women's League Tag side, managed to compete in Mid-West Cup competitions was a great achievement, but their off-field work mattered most.

"The bushfires started in September last year ... that went right through to March," secretary and player Lauren Stevens said.

"We normally start our football season in March and we normally start training in January. We couldn't start training at all.

Lithgow Bears crowned 2020 Grassroots Club of the Year

"Our competition had been pushed back and then pushed back again because of COVID. The club all rallied together."

Lithgow's Tony Luchetti Sportsground mightn't have seen any rugby league for a while due to smoke from bushfires, which came down the nearby hill, but it was still put to great use during testing times.

"This was then allocated as an evacuation centre for those that needed to get away from their homes as well as bring their animals down. So we had animals around the football field," Stevens said.

Then there were four …

"We also opened up our football sheds for anyone who needed showers or toilets or anything like that as well as having soft drink and water ready."

Five homes were lost to blazes in the Lithgow township with about 200 more destroyed on surrounding rural properties and at Clarence, according to Stevens.

Bears members helped raise money and provided resources including food, hand sanitiser and delivered ice to the rural fire brigade.

Stevens described Lithgow as a "family-orientated club" and that is apparent in their work in promoting positive mental health strategies.

Tragically, the Bears have lost four players to suicide, including two a few years ago. They are all recognised with memorial awards and the Nathan Boundy memorial match is held annually against Kandos.

When COVID-19 and lockdown hit, the club was concerned.

"The biggest thing was worrying we wouldn't have players and that players might do something with mental illness," Stevens said.

That led to Lithgow organising video calls and gym sessions over Zoom to continually check in with everyone.

The Bears have been involved with the Walk'n'Talk for Life initiative and hosted mental illness fundraisers, while pamphlets are "up everywhere" around the club to encourage conversations.

Stevens, who has been at the Bears for more than five years, said the club is about much more than winning.

"We're not a 'competitive' club," she said.

"We're just second-division, so none of our players get paid or anything. We just cater for the players that have never played before, players who may not be good enough for first-grade.

"Or the ones that are less fortunate, who aren't financially-viable to buy football boots or pay registration and things like that. We have a box of boots down at the sheds for anyone who does need them."

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Josh Landis, the CEO ClubsNSW, paid tribute to Lithgow.

"The club industry is enormously proud of its long and close association with the game of rugby league - especially at the grassroots level," Landis said.

"The Lithgow Bears Rugby League Football Club is the worthy recipient of the 2020 ClubsNSW NRL Grassroots Club of the Year Award.

"Congratulations to the Bears and all of the selfless volunteers whose extraordinary efforts have made junior rugby league what it is today.

"In what has been an extremely challenging year for us all, the service and dedication of these individuals is recognised and appreciated now more than ever."

Stevens said the honour, which complements the Bears' recent NSWRL community award, hasn't sunk in yet.

She hopes Lithgow will be considered to host future NRL events.

"We want the tourism, we want our business to get up and growing in Lithgow," she said.