Sand, surf, scripture and the Spirit

Sports Chaplaincy Australia defines a chaplain as a “trusted, authentic, caring person. They are trained in sports pastoral care to assist sports communities provide genuine care for their members.”   

Helene O’Neill is chaplain of Cooks Hill Surf Club. 

She has completed Levels One and Two of a chaplaincy course and her office is the beach, “a place without four walls”. Helene enjoys being in the great outdoors and connecting with the spirituality of nature. She loves that Cooks Hill Surf Club is a family-oriented club. “It epitomises a community, not a eucharistic community but a living faith community, faith in action.” Years ago, when working as the Knights Development and Coaching Officer, it was suggested to Helene that she may want to be chaplain to the Knights but she didn’t see the connection between faith and footy. Her views on chaplaincy and sport have changed since then.

Helene loves that Cooks Hill Surf Club values diversity, respect and inclusiveness. The club works in partnership with “Life without Barriers” and “Same Waves”, a program to help people with disabilities and special needs access and enjoy sand and surf. Helene said, “Kids love it – there is a sense of belonging, and everyone is welcome, no matter what age or stage of life.”  As chaplain, Helene is a sounding board when someone needs to debrief, a ‘go-to’ person for major incidents or private needs and someone to yarn with at Nippers or at carnivals. 

One of Helene’s favourite scripture passages is, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20) and this encapsulates all she does. Helene loves bringing the fruits of the Holy Spirit into sport. She believes sport is the microcosm of everything that happens where you learn the qualities of life. The fruits of the Spirit are evident and these skills can be transferred to other areas of life.

An avid cyclist, Helene also plays badminton and touch footy, runs and spends time at the beach. She devotes time each morning to weights and rowing where she gets in touch with herself and gives thanks for her gifts which she uses throughout the day. 

Nicole Pitfield, whose children are members of Cooks Hill Surf Club, says Helene is, “the epitome of a Christian, a good role model who knows the kids by name”. Parent Alicia Breasley spoke of Helene’s new role as chaplain. She said, “Helene is a fantastic resource as she already has a relationship with many of the children and is able to bring together practical aspects of their lives and their beliefs.” Alicia said that sometimes there are situations in a surf club that are difficult to cope with, such as rescues or resuscitations, and it’s wonderful to have support.

Helene believes faith is ‘caught, not taught’ and the best way to demonstrate this is connecting with people. Helene sees herself as an active listener and if she sees a “Mary MacKillop moment”, an opportunity to develop faith and foster involvement, she asks herself, “How might I do that?” Helene is someone who notices others’ need to be valued as an individual. She is trained in Clinical Pastoral Education and it doesn’t feel like work to combine family, faith and diocese.

Helene’s parish involvement at St James’, Kotara, includes being Chair of the Parish Team, Sacramental Co-ordinator, Eucharistic Minister and Altar Server Co-ordinator! She loves chatting to parishioners with a cuppa after Mass and believes everyone has a place in the parish − such as Ray, “Minister for Chocolate Biscuits”. 

Helene is employed by the diocese as Family Ministry Co-ordinator and Sports Chaplain. She has worked for the local church for six years, supporting 22 schools from Stockton to Swansea. She liaises across schools, families and parishes to show people there are different ways of journeying in faith. She loves the opportunities afforded her through mixing with everyday people in their everyday lives. This may happen through chatting in the playground or at a sports carnival or through formal activities such as school retreats and staff development days.

Another of Helene’s innovations is “Blessings in the Bush”, a program inviting students to walk in the bush, stopping to reflect at a special place such as a waterfall. Two years ago she came up with the “Faith and Footy” primary school program which incorporates a passage from scripture to send a subtle message.

Through Pope Francis, the Vatican has established a Sport and Health Unit. Canberra’s Monsignor John Woods is championing a similar unit through the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and a working party of eight was convened to establish a strategic plan for such an initiative. Helene is a member of that group and looks forward to contributing over the next three years.

Helene says that, “People have never been more connected via social media but they do less actual speaking face to face with each other.” She loves to empower others to use their gifts and talents. Helene is always looking for challenges and opportunities. Her philosophy is to keep it simple, have a few laughs, have a chat, listen and take the cue.

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