Kaine Sheppard's foundation aims to help kids with Autism. (Photo: KS Foundation Website)

The former A-League striker is ensuring children with Autism and their families can enjoy the beautiful game.

It’s become increasingly common for global superstars to start their own foundations, utilising their fame and wealth to support good causes close to their heart. It’s certainly less ordinary for a player whose clubs include the likes of Braintree, Histon and Heidelberg to do so.

But following some conversations around life after the game, that’s exactly what Kaine Sheppard did. 

The A-League striker sat down with The Inner Sanctum to share his story.

“To be honest, I didn’t know how many big stars out there run their own foundations until I started. I was just at Newcastle and we have people come in from the PFA [Professional Footballers Australia] who chat to you about different interests, and it’s something that just popped up.”

Inspired by the experiences of his older brother Jake, the then Newcastle Jets striker set up the KS Foundation back in 2019 while out with an injury. 

“My brother has Autism, and he’s still based in England. So, that’s how I got in to it.

“I had good help at the start, and that helped a lot, and the club were really good. It was more I was nervous, because I didn’t know who would be interested, who would turn up, that was probably the main thing.”

But come they certainly did. By the end of the season, the KS Foundation had a long waiting list of families looking to make use of their innovative sensory room at the McDonald Jones Stadium.

“Sensory overload [is a huge problem]. Simple things like the lights might be too much, or the noise. We had parents that would take their kids to games and sit in the crowd with other fans and they’d have to leave, sometimes within twenty minutes, half an hour because it would be too overwhelming. So we created a space in one of the corporate boxes that Newcastle gave to us and it just gave the children a chance to go inside if they wanted to be able to watch the game. 

“Once they got comfortable, they were able to go sit outside and enjoy the atmosphere and the environment, but if it got too much for them, they could just take themselves away from it rather than actually leave the stadium, which makes it so much easier for them. 

“By the end, some of the children were able, and wanted to sit outside and enjoy the game for the whole 90 minutes and cheer and all that stuff, which is just fantastic.”

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Seeing the impact the sensory impact games can have on the young children, and the benefit they get from the rooms the KS Foundation provide, has been an eye opening experience for Sheppard.

“[Jake] would always come and watch my games as much as he could, and I probably didn’t realise some things until a few years ago, until I started the foundation and started talking to more parents and people at schools. But there were a few times he would get very angry and overwhelmed at my games, and I didn’t really understand why that was happening. 

“Another thing the kids with Autism we worked with, they love their headphones. My brother, we used to go to out to our grandparents in the car, and basically, if he had had enough of us, he just used to put his headphones on and watch his iPad and stuff, and at the time, I didn’t really think too much about it but I can sort of see now that was what was happening.”

Building on these early successes, the KS Foundation have now branched out; organising football clinics to help create safe spaces for young people with Autism who want to enjoy the beautiful game.

“We only started recently with the football sessions. There was one great one in Newcastle which I saw and really enjoyed, and then coming back to Melbourne, we started one with Fitzroy [City]. These kids really enjoy routine. They love their sport, but sometimes it can be a bit more challenging for them in certain aspects, maybe the social side of things or if there are too many instructions they can become overwhelming. 

“We just created a space where they still get to learn cognitive skills, get to practice their ball skills but also just have fun in an environment that’s not too overwhelming. We also have volunteers who come and if it gets too overwhelming, they can just take a break.”

The fantastic work Sheppard has been doing has rightly earned plaudits from across the game, with teammates, football clubs and the governing body all lending their support to the KS Foundation.

“[The reaction] was very overwhelming, and I was very grateful for all the support. As I said, I was a bit nervous about who would turn up, but all the boys when I was in Newcastle all embraced it and were asking questions about it. 

“A lot of the players, if they weren’t playing, would go up to the room for me and take pictures with the families and the kids, which they all loved. We did a sensory room at Melbourne City and they loved it. We did one with the Matildas, and they were all fantastic as well!” 

Sheppard has achieved so much in the short time, especially given the disruption caused by the ongoing pandemic. 

But for him, making a difference to families like his own has been the biggest highlight of all.

“Just seeing the families, is the biggest thing for me. Some of them are able to go to football stadiums as a family and watch football, which when you talk to them they haven’t been able to do. 

“And just to see the kids enjoying themselves on the pitch, because they have so much to offer and enjoy. I still think there’s a stigma around not just Autism but disability in general, but they love their sport, they want to be out there enjoying themselves, they want to be playing, so to see them doing that is great, and to see their families with a big smile on their face, for me, is the biggest thing.” 

While the current Covid situation makes the near future hard to predict, a major sporting event looming on the horizon presents a long-term target for the 27-year-old free agent. 

“I’d love to get it back into stadiums with sensory rooms once fans are allowed back in, and maybe even in the future, because we’ll be hosting the 2023 Women’s World Cup, maybe putting a sensory room in there.”

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