When Hollie Murphy first became a PE teacher in Dubai she could not help but notice how disabled children were left out of sports classes.
That moment, 12 years ago, inspired the Irishwoman to start a group that has since offered hundreds of children a sporting chance they may not otherwise have had.
What started out as an afterschool club has grown into a Special Olympics-affiliated organisation.
“When I first came to the Middle East the children with additional needs were being taken out of my PE classes,” said the 33-year-old Dubliner.
“The truth is they actually thrive in sporting environments so I decided to set up a little afterschool club for them.”
The club was so successful that Ms Murphy realised there was a huge demand from families with disabled children for sporting facilities that catered to them.
This led to her contacting other sporting organisations such as the Dubai Knight Eagles, where she played rugby, as well as the gym she used, to see if she could bring the children there to use the facilities.
Other facilities across the emirate gradually came on board as the project continued to grow in popularity.
It has been so successful that Ms Murphy recently gave up teaching and registered the project as a non-profit organisation called Heroes of Hope.
The project provides classes free of charge, seven days a week, for disabled children in sports including basketball, football, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, volleyball and rugby.
“I saw there was a serious need for these children to have what I would call normality,” she said.
“It was about giving them that integration into society and creating social bonds by helping them to build relationships through sports.”
The group’s affiliation with the Special Olympics is apt given the UAE’s association with the organisation in recent years.
Abu Dhabi hosted the Special Olympics World Games in 2019, with more than 7,000 athletes from all over the world taking part.
“We’ve built a community of complete acceptance, no matter what the needs of the child are,” she said.
“We have children who are physically disabled and children with intellectual disabilities.”
It is not just young people who can take part. The group is open to all age groups, with Ms Murphy saying the athletes range from six to 40.
“They need the same access to sports and fitness that we all do,” she said.
“We want to break down the stigma and focus on what the children can do, not what they can’t do.
“They didn’t choose to be born different but yet the whole world sees them as different.”
Another aspect of Heroes of Hope is that it offers a network for the families of those taking part in the sports as well.
“The families know these kids will probably never be independent, they will be different, and they will probably have to look after these kids for the rest of their lives,” she said.
“We are trying to give them some sense of hope and normality and offering them a break for even an hour a week is a huge help.
“Children usually start talking after the age of one or two, but for other families that is when they realise their child is autistic. It’s a very different experience for those parents.”
Heroes of Hope has been so successful there are plans to expand into Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.
However, like most agencies across the world, the group has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We used to be able before to pop into any facility and use it free of charge but Covid-19 has made that a little bit trickier,” she said.
“Companies are understandably reluctant to give us their facility as they need to make their money back after what happened with Covid.
“It has changed the dynamic and means we are surviving on small donations at the moment for facilities and kits, but it’s important that we are still providing the classes to families for free.”