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Woody Welcomes - the young boy making a difference

Words by Abi Scaife

“It doesn't matter in football, if you've got a disability or not, if you're visually impaired, or you’re a wheelchair user - nobody seems to care,” says Natalie. “If that's your team, then you're in the family and you're part of it, and it doesn't matter.”

Sports is the great uniter - no matter your background, race, gender, sexuality or opinion on Marmite (this author is strictly pro-Marmite), if you back the same team, you’re sure to have something to talk about.

Even if you don’t support the same team, having a sport in common is a great way to bond with someone - to create a connection and meet new people you might never have known otherwise.

For Woody O’Rourke, aged 10, that extends to every fan of football - including the ones supporting the opposition.

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Football is universal

“I didn't really know anything about football ‘til Woody got this massive obsession with football,” explains Natalie O’Rourke, Woody’s mum. After Woody was rejected from a local football club, Natalie began bringing him to Brentford FC games. 

“I don't know anything technical about it. But what I do know about football is that it's an international language. Woody can't really talk that well - his speech is emerging. If he was in a playground with a bunch of children, they wouldn't very clearly hear what he was saying. But it doesn't matter. Because if there's a football, not just children, but everybody will join in.”

When Natalie and Woody first decided to support Brentford Football Club, they weren’t sure what to expect - but it turns out to be one of the best decisions they’ve ever made. Woody has Down Syndrome and, football - especially his love of Brentford! - has helped him to bond and make friends; even with the footballers he loves so much.

“Brentford just embraced us,” says Natalie. “They invited him to lead the team out the first ever match he went to … [they] gave him a kit and everything. And he walked out with Konza, who now plays for [Aston] Villa, and he was really tiny,” There's even a video of it on YouTube. “To be honest, we've never looked back. It's just changed our lives and become part of our lives - and it's helped him to make friends.”

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Accessible to all

Today, Woody and Natalie run ‘Woody Welcomes’, taking charge of welcoming visiting teams to the Gtech Community Stadium - including welcoming the disabled fans. Woody and Natalie want to make sure that all disabled fans have the football experience they deserve - to show people that Brentford FC is accessible to all its fans.

One of the best ways to represent Woody Welcomes is this - on a night when the whole world was watching Brentford FC, Woody shared an incredibly touching moment with manager Thomas Frank. The image was instantly a huge hit, and was spread online - something Natalie took as an opportunity to spread awareness of not only Down Syndrome, but how football clubs are for everybody.

“The thing that astounds me about the players is that generally speaking, they're young men in their early 20s. And the fact that they bother to try and communicate with Woody … they've got the world at their fingertips,” marvels Natalie. “They've got adoration, they've got money - but they're bothered about communicating with fans like Woody, and I think that says really a lot about them as people. I can only speak for the players that we've interacted with, but every single one of them will make time for Woody and try and understand him.”

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Having a cheerful face like Woody’s greet you for every football game is a great way to kick things off (haha) - and it’s doing incredibly important work. Woody’s work greeting other disabled fans is a great way of highlighting how important it is for, not just sports teams, but venues like the Gtech Community Stadium to focus on their inclusivity initiatives.

Woody reminds us all that disabled fans are just as important as neurotypical and able-bodied fans, and that venues and sports clubs alike need to work together to make sure they are included.

To learn more about Woody Welcomes, you can visit the Woody Welcomes website. 

To read more of our 18Under18 series, follow this link to see more!

Charity check-in 

At Smiley Movement, we like to elevate the work of charities across the world. Here are three charities whose causes align with the themes in this article.

The Down's Syndrome Association. This charity is here to support and walk along life's journey with both old and young people living with Down's Syndrome. Support them here.

Down Syndrome UK. This is a national charity passionate about empowering parents and professionals to improve the lives of those with Down Syndrome. Learn more here.

Mencap. This is a UK charity for people with a learning disability, helping to support them, their families and carers. Find out more.

This article aligns with the UN SDG Reduced Inequalities.

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