How parkrun is changing lives with its commitment to inclusion and diversity
Like many other mother-daughter duos, Kylee Davie and her daughter Veronika enjoy going for a run together.
But they know their Saturday morning run doesn’t look like what many would expect.
“Anyone can go running with their daughter, we just do it a bit differently,” Kylee said.
After Veronika was born she was diagnosed with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, and epilepsy.
Her parents were originally told that she would never walk, an assumption proved wrong when Veronika was five years old.
Today Veronika uses a sports wheelchair, which Kylee pushes on their runs and walks.
A string of health issues has continued to challenge Veronika and her family over the years, including major surgery with a long recovery period.
During Veronika’s recovery, the pair would often go on walks together, an activity that Kylee said became a vital part of their routine.
“We would drop my sons off at school and we would head out for a walk,” she said.
But that soon wasn’t enough for Veronika.
“She always complained she wanted to go faster!” Kylee said.
When a friend suggested that the pair should attend parkrun — a free community run/walk event every Saturday in locations across Australia — Kylee originally dismissed it.
“I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to go because I’m not a runner, and it’s called parkrun,” she said.
“But that was a huge myth.”
Five years on, the two are still aiming to attend their local parkrun every week.
Beryl Doocey is a regular at her local parkrun in Redcliffe, Queensland, winning in her age category every week.
She said it’s easy to see why — she’s the only one in her category.
The mother of ten noticed her local parkrun event didn’t feature anyone with a mobility walker, like her.
“So I asked and they were excited for me to join!” she said.
Beryl even celebrated her 90th birthday at her local parkrun, finishing off her walk with a guard of honour.
She said the effort the group went to for her was unexpected.
“They went to so much trouble — I can’t believe how encouraging and lovely everyone is,” Beryl said.
Not one for inconsistency, Beryl said she has been active her whole life.
“I had to use it or lose it, you have to keep moving!” she said.
Like Kylee and Veronika, Beryl represents parkrun participants who do things a little differently to their counterparts.
‘I felt completely valued’
It’s clear to see the event’s success can be attributed to its commitment to inclusion and accessibility.
When an organiser approached Kylee and Veronika at the Bellerive parkrun in Hobart suggesting another course would be more accessible for Veronika’s wheelchair, Kylee said the gesture spoke volumes.
“I just felt completely valued,” she said.
“It was really refreshing, and Veronika felt valued too.”
Kylee knows that navigating the world with a disability can often be intimidating.
“When participating with a disability you can feel like you’re banging your head up against a wall — more often than not you know it won’t be accessible,” Kylee said.
Margaret Johnston, who is deaf, has had similar experiences.
Now a Penrith Lakes parkrun regular in New South Wales, she said she loved the event from her first Saturday morning run.
“From that day I was hooked and determined to return the next Saturday morning to improve my time,” she said.
Her local event didn’t have sign language support when she signed up, but that changed quickly thanks to her National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding which provided an Auslan interpreter.
Today the Penrith lakes event hosts several deaf parkrunners every week.
“My local event has welcomed deaf runners with open arms and created an amazing atmosphere where we can feel comfortable,” Margaret said.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, parkrun events around the country immediately stopped.
A podcast was launched to update participants, which was “impossible for deaf runners to access”, Margaret said.
Rather than accept it, she took matters into her own hands.
“I recorded numerous videos in Auslan explaining the updates and posted them on the Penrith Lakes parkrun Facebook page,” she said.
The videos were shared by other parkrun Facebook pages across the country.
More than just a run
While the physical health benefits of parkrun and parkwalk events are obvious, Kylee, Veronika, Beryl and Margaret have experienced more than the satisfaction of beating their personal best time since joining.
“The running helps me stay strong for Veronika, both mentally and physically, so I can help her with her physical support needs as well,” Kylee said.
She said it’s been an important reminder to set aside time for herself as well.
“I’m not just Veronika’s mum … I’m a runner, a friend, and an employee,” Kylee said.
The mental health benefits from attending parkrun were something Margaret Johnston noticed early on.
“I will never be a marathon runner, but my mental health has improved and I feel so much happier,” she said.
Often shame and fear of embarrassment can be the main barriers for individuals when approaching exercise.
An element of parkrun that Margaret, Kylee and Beryl said they appreciated the most was the tail walker, a volunteer who is the last to cross the finish line to ensure everyone is accounted for — meaning no one comes last.
The encouraging community is what keeps 90-year-old Beryl coming back for more week after week.
“When I’m going around they’re always cheering ‘Go Beryl go!’ — it makes you feel important!” she said.
Kylie said Veronika looks forward to the event, and that the parkrun community always check in if she isn’t well enough to attend.
“Having something you can go to every week to get that human connection – especially after the last few years – is really valuable.”