Nick Kenny thought his childhood dream had been realised when he secured a professional rugby league contract with the Brisbane Broncos before injury unceremoniously ended his career at 29.
However with a physiotherapy degree behind him, his life took an unexpected turn when he moved to the Northern Territory and embarked on a personal and professional journey creating change within Indigenous communities.
“I was always sports-mad as a kid and rugby league was especially my favourite. Like most kids, I always dreamt of playing professionally and while studying physiotherapy at the University of Queensland, I was also playing university rugby league.”
By chance it turns out the the coach of the Queensland and Australian Universities rugby league team was also a scout for the Brisbane Broncos, and he thought Nick played well enough to offer him
an opportunity to play in the NRL.
“Once I graduated, I ended up playing full time for the Broncos for nine years, however my career was cut short after I sustained a neck injury. I came home from the doctors and was told my career was over and I had to look for a job.”
After a short lived sporting career, subsequent depression and a relationship breakdown Nick took the opportunity to get out of Brisbane when he responded to an advertisement for a physiotherapist working for local mining company, GEMCO and the Alyangula community on Groote Eylandt, and it was there he first encountered Machado-Joseph Disease (MJD).
“It’s not a well-known disease,” says Nick, “but its symptoms include progressive neuromuscular degeneration, causing muscle weakness, loss of fine and gross motor coordination, loss of balance and eventually, complete loss of mobility.”
Although MJD is a physically debilitating disease, it does not affect its sufferers’ intellect whatsoever which means patients with MJD become prisoners trapped within their bodies.
“I could see that MJD was prohibiting these people from taking part in their cultural and ceremonial practices, ultimately disengaging them from their community.”
Nick initially began working with a few clients in a volunteer capacity in order to help them achieve a better quality of life through function and safety.
There are always so many challenges, yet our patients are so resilient and it’s truly inspiring to work with them.
“My aim was to try to train clients so they could walk on soft sand, along rocky outcrops and
in shallow water. It’s very important for indigenous people to remain connected to country and be able to participate in traditional activities and ceremony. This is how they pass on their knowledge and remain engaged with culture.”
GEMCO supported Nick’s work with the MJD Foundation and in 2012 he started an allied health business, “Active Performance” to treat people with MJD across the NT and QLD. Today Active Performance also provides allied health services to mining companies, remote health clinics and many indigenous NDIS participants throughout Australia, including those in FNQ.
“I am extremely grateful and proud to partner with an organisation such as the MJD Foundation. What started as a small team of volunteers in 2008, now has over 50 staff and supports close to 200 clients and family across Australia and mostly in very remote locations. The MJDF funds its work through corporate sponsorships, philanthropic donations, government grants and NDIS funding.”
Nick says the relationships formed with his clients is extraordinary and is more akin to helping family, rather than patients.
“There are always so many challenges, yet our patients are so resilient and it’s truly inspiring to work with them. Sometimes seeing indigenous people in a clinical sense doesn’t always work in the traditional sense, so I meet them on their country at the outstations. We jump in the Troopy take the spears, fishing lines, go walking along beaches, around billabongs hunting and gathering bush tucker – all these techniques are natural activities for them, but also have deep rooted physical therapy benefits. In feeling that connection to each other and to country, they feel like they’re not missing out on cultural life when they are disabled.
And it isn’t always physical support that Nick ad his team offer as there are often additional factors impacting on their lifestyle including issues with housing, mental health and the ability to access consistent home care. Because it can be so multilayered Nick chooses to spend extended time in the communities.
“I’d been on Groote Eylandt for a few years and had successfully built connections linking Allied Health and Indigenous communities. Then as a hobby with my sister and some friends, we set up community events – trivia nights, games nights etc. We’d auction off different items to raise money to bring across key sporting bodies to run programs for the kids who weren’t getting exposed to these activities. Within a matter of months, we had a request from the TO’s to do this on a bigger scale and to use sport as a vehicle to increase school attendance and counteract youth crime and dissonance. And so was born, Bush Fit Mob.”
The Bush Fit Mob, designed as a community initiative, was established to look after body, food and mind and work against the ‘shame’ that often exists among many indigenous youths. Sport and recreational programs alongside a culturally appropriate educational curriculum are delivered to youth outside of a traditional classroom.
“We engage the kids and their culture through storytelling, sports and different teaching modalities, rather than workbooks. The coolest thing about the whole program is the support from the TOs. We have a great team of TO’s who work with us to deliver the BFM program to local youth. We are trying to give kids important experiences and life skills education beyond the school system. They’re learning the Western curriculum in schools, which just doesn’t work. The gap is in what the kids are learning and what they want to learn – life skills based on TO input which is delivered in culturally appropriate ways,” says Nick.
In three years, BFM has evolved into something extraordinary by delivering sport and recreation, arts and crafts, yoga, meditation, nutrition classes, trade skills, vocational courses, weekly personal development and the new random acts of kindness program. As a result, crime rates have decreased, school attendance has increased by up to 30%, and Groote Eylandt sporting teams are now travelling to compete regionally and interstate, inspiring many.
“We get asked to go to other communities often, but at this stage our focus needs to stay firmly on the kids on Groote, as we’re not finished there yet.
“I had my time as an athlete and saw what the team physios had to put up with – patching up the athletes just to watch them re-join the contest and damage themselves again. Working in that field after being a player did not interest me. I went to Groote Eylandt to take a different type of physio job. Getting immersed in the community and working with the indigenous population has been my saviour. It really put things in perspective for me and made me feel grateful for everything I had. It has completely shifted my mindset – rather than chasing goals to satisfy myself, it allowed me to experience doing something meaningful for other people and chasing those types of goals feels far more rewarding.”