Scoring a try for mental health: This counsellor uses rugby to uplift at-risk youth

Scoring a try for mental health: This counsellor uses rugby to uplift at-risk youth

After her parents went to prison, Cass was raised by her grandparents. At the age of 18, she fell pregnant. It was that moment that she dedicated her life to supporting at risk adolescence and upskilling them to become emotionally intelligent.

Beautiful News
Beautiful News

The ball spins through the air, landing in a teenager’s open arms. The player sprints towards the end of the pitch and scores a try. On the sideline, counsellor Cassandra Carels smiles with pride. “There is so much therapy within sport,” she says. In many underprivileged communities in South Africa, poverty leads to crime and violence. This has a profound impact on people’s mental health, particularly youth. Using touch rugby to foster emotional understanding and awareness, Carels is providing vulnerable teenagers with the support she never received. 

Carels grew up in Hanover Park in Cape Town. After her father was sent to prison and her mother moved away, her grandparents became her guardians. However, when she turned 18, Carels discovered she was pregnant and they cut her off. But she was still determined to make something of herself. While pregnant, she worked night shifts and put herself through university. After completing a degree in psychology, Carels decided to dedicate her life to assisting and upskilling youth. 

Carels is now the manager of The School of Hard Knocks, a centre for at-risk teenagers in the Western Cape. After their games of touch rugby, the kids and their coaches address circumstances the children may be experiencing, including violence, poverty, gangsterism, and broken homes. “You can’t unlock things within you without having the emotional intelligence of doing so,” Carels explains. But their main emphasis is on the positive features that shine through each individual, teaching them self-worth and helping them smile each day. 

Combining the benefits of team sport with counselling, teenagers experience what it means to be supported and are able to revitalise their mental health. “You don’t have to be defined by the past,” Carels says. “Every day you get an opportunity to recreate yourself.” After carving out a life of stability for herself, she’s helping youth become their own pillar of strength. With heightened resilience, these kids are able to lead healthier and happier lives.

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