From Member to Partner: the Dundee Dragons and Project 21

By Sported |  30th April 2021

When Dr Elizabeth Ferris returned to her studies after a spinal cord injury there was nowhere in Dundee or Tayside for her to continue her love for team sports as a new wheelchair user. She had been introduced to rugby league during her injury rehab but the only team in Scotland at the time was in Glasgow, some 80 miles away. Despite efforts by the local council and charities, Elizabeth recognised that the benefit of inclusive team sports had been underestimated by local providers.

Dundee Dragons

Elizabeth knew this had to change and set out with a “wild dream” of creating a wheelchair team sports club in Dundee. In early 2013, Elizabeth worked with the local Scottish Rugby League development officers and Dundee City Disability Sports who decided to host an open day to see if other people in the city might be interested. They spent weeks before the event stuffing invites into envelopes, hanging up flyers and posters, and seeking out whatever official sponsorship they could find.

The Scottish Rugby League officers even persuaded the Bradford Bulls Wheelchair Rugby League team to put on a showcase match for the event without any idea if anyone would actually show up.

The open day was a huge success and Elizabeth knew that with all this interest, there was enough energy to build the club

“So often wheelchair users have been told “No” in their life, so at Dundee Dragons we made it our mission to say “Yes! Let’s try. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll try again”.

The club grew from there, and with the help of a team of fantastic volunteers, they supported anyone who wanted to try a different sport or face a new challenge.  Everyone worked incredibly hard, but the demand came from the participants and as the numbers grew the sporting opportunities multiplied. 

One of the young people to attend the open day in 2013 was 15-year-old Gemma Lumsdaine. At the time Gemma was really struggling to accept her disability:

“I’d always seen my disability as a negative. I didn’t know anyone with a disability could do something really positive. 

And at the open day I had that realisation of: ‘wow, I can really achieve things with my life”.

Dundee Dragons became a Sported member in 2015 and to begin with, they weren’t really sure what Sported actually did. However, after such a quick growth period, the Dragons were struggling with some of their strategic planning and with understanding where to focus, for a more sustainable future. Sported quickly partnered them up with a volunteer to support with business planning and with creating a comprehensive fundraising strategy.

The volunteer worked with them closely to identify next steps and the Dragons felt that, “to have access to this guy was truly amazing”.

Scotland Manager, Daniel Fyffe-Jardine visited the Dragons in 2019 to get to know the club and saw the impact they had on young people first-hand. On the train back home to Edinburgh, Dan realised that some of the Dragons were also travelling to Edinburgh and sat with them.  He discovered that many young people with disabilities were still having to travel miles to access team sport activities. Dan called the Dragons the next day and they hatched a plan to bring more sports to young people with disabilities in Scotland.

With 21% of young people in Scotland considered disabled, and over 80% of those young people wishing they were more active, the need was clear.

Project 21 was born, piloting in Dundee with the support of Scottish Disability Sport, the Dundee Dragons, and their “yes, we can” ethos firmly at the centre. 

Gemma and Elizabeth are excited to see the variety of clubs involved in the project, all targeting different groups so often forgotten by sports clubs. Project 21 has already had a big impact for the Dragons themselves, with 3 young people signing up for a new opportunity to be part of the Project 21 Young Influencer programme:

“The Dragons and Project 21 is focussed on ability not disability. To have them sign up to the Young Influencer programme is huge because they have a new opportunity, and to see them want to make an impact on other young people is incredible.

Those Young Influencers would never have thought they could inspire other young people, but they have the entire Dundee Dragons team behind them supporting them all the way!”

As Project 21 partners, the Dundee Dragons continue to energise others with their infectiously optimistic attitude for providing new opportunities for young people with disabilities in Dundee. Their experience will offer essential support for other groups throughout the project and the connections they build will establish a sustainable future for more young people to come.

The Dundee Dragons were named after the Dragon statue that stands in the centre of Dundee, with the hope of creating something new and powerful without disability as the focus. But the name Dragons has done more than represent this club and their mission to impact “one life at a time”. Their dragon-like energy has created a forceful partnership for Project 21 and an exciting realisation of its’ potential impact.

The Dragons are strong, they are fiery, and undoubtedly magical.

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