Rugby is neither a game for the faint of heart nor the weak of knee. It combines all of the physical endurance of soccer, the strength and prowess of football, and the sheer guts of being a soldier. There’s one ball on a field, a field often splattered with blood and sweat.
It is not a sport commonly regarded for its humanitarian efforts but Saskatchewan’s Karl Fix has been working to change all of that. After spending much of his life playing and coaching the great game, he decided to start up a little international competition, one that included some decidedly heart-warming spirit.
“I wanted to stay involved in rugby. I wanted to do what I liked best about rugby. What I liked about rugby wasn’t the actual game: it’s the culture around it,” he said.
He started the Dog River Howlers Rugby Club a decade ago. It’s an invitational rugby club with players and supporters from all across Canada, all of whom subscribe to the motto that ‘rugby is more than a game, but a way of life.’ Its players take trips to other lands to play the game with fellow ruggers, bringing with them not just their cameras and beach towels.
They bring lots and lots of sporting goods and clothes and personal items to donate to charity while they’re not playing too.
“The idea is to teach kids about life: first of all, working as a team – winning, losing – the friendships, the connections. Then we travel, go to different countries … to play rugby and to do what I call ‘rugby missionary work’.”
He called rugby the vehicle that builds bridges between people around the world.
Last month, some local players joined the Howlers on a trip to Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia. Less than 10 years ago, it had a nearly 50 per cent unemployment rate, with staggering poverty and crime.
Each member of the team fund-raised and collected donations to bring with them, enough to stuff a few dozen sports bags. They also brought their enthusiasm to work with local organizations at the same time.
“What I said the Dog River Howlers were going to do, we’re going to play rugby around the world but it’s not necessarily to win championships. It’s more about learning life skills and seeing the world, getting life lessons, and we’re going to raise some money for some good causes.”
On the field, more than 500 young men and women have laced up for 70 or so tournaments in Canada and the United States, as well as places like Mexico, Cuba, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Colombia.
Off the field, they have raised more than $2 million for sports and educational programs, efforts to help the sick and injured or the destitute, orphanages, women’s shelters, treatment programs, earthquake relief work, and other support organizations.
In Colombia, they worked with the Life by Life Foundation (which works to change the lives of vulnerable youth through activities such as education, sport, and art) and also offered assistance to victims of the Moravia barrio fire. The August fire destroyed more than 100 houses built on a mountain of garbage, injuring 12 but leaving 400 homeless.
Sarah Jeffery said that her daughter (Avery Jeffery, #52) is always keen on leadership opportunities, especially ones that serve to benefit charity or the community in some way. Last year, she joined efforts with the Edmonton Clansmen Rugby Club to start up a donation collection as a response to the Wood Buffalo/Fort McMurray wildfire.
Given the chance to help people in Colombia was an easy decision for her too, aided by the fact that “rugby is the same all around the world,” Sarah said.
“You get to meet new friends. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. You get to help people in the process of playing rugby.”
The young woman attempted various strategies to collect donations, including making and selling St. Albert Rugby Club car decals and even made a request of the Value Village store for some items. She scored a bunch of cleats out of that. By her account, Canada’s rugby contingent had a great time handing out the stuff and playing games with the Life by Life kids, and seeing the smiles on all their faces.
“My daughter and I fell in love with the country and the people in it. She gained a lot on the field and off the field,” she continued, adding that Avery does want to join the Howlers on their next adventure.
“She’s like, ‘I would do this every year if I could.’ She said it was an eye-opener. It’s a completely different lifestyle. She said, ‘I’ve learned not to take a lot of things for granted, like running water…’ little things that we wouldn’t think of on a daily basis that she has that these children in Colombia don’t have access to.”
Kiana Krueger (#48) said that there were no words to describe how wonderful the experience was to bring strangers together in the community of sport and goodwill.
“I find it very cool how we can go to such a place that speaks a different language and in how we are two different countries and then we can come together as one and play a game we all love,” she said.
“The saying ‘it’s a way of life’ really comes to play when I went on this tour. It was amazing walking through the streets of neighbourhoods and see how everyone is happy and enjoying their day, when they only have a little. It was a huge eye-opening experience for me.”
She really appreciated the chance to meet the kids through the Life by Life Foundation. It brought tears to her eyes.
“They were playing music and the little kids were dancing around just having a fun time, helping out handing out food. And then they sang for us and one guy commented on what the song was about. He said they were singing about how they were asking God to get them away from all the harsh stuff they go through. It’s amazing to see what they go through and how they can still have a huge smile on their faces.”
Krueger, like all the others, said that she’s proud to be a Howler: one who knows the value of team effort in sports and as a citizen who cares.