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More than hockey: Dalhousie's Bélanger leads program to help children with Down syndrome

Dalhousie University hockey player Alec Bélanger, right, is the recipient of this year's Atlantic University Sport student-athlete community service award. He started a program that pairs student volunteers with children with Down syndrome and their siblings, offering them a place to play and do activities. (Richard Woodbury/CBC - image credit)
Dalhousie University hockey player Alec Bélanger, right, is the recipient of this year's Atlantic University Sport student-athlete community service award. He started a program that pairs student volunteers with children with Down syndrome and their siblings, offering them a place to play and do activities. (Richard Woodbury/CBC - image credit)

When Dalhousie University hockey player Alec Bélanger played major junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League, the coaches stressed the importance of community involvement to their players.

For the then 16-year-old who had some growing up to do, he didn't understand what it had to do with hockey.

"Why wouldn't it be, like, play hard, be tough?" Bélanger remembers thinking.

Now 21, Bélanger, who was born in Quebec City but moved around a lot, has wrapped up his rookie season with the Tigers. He earned the Atlantic University Sport award for rookie of the year for his play on the ice.

Off of it, he was honoured with the student-athlete community service award for starting a program at the university that pairs student volunteers with children with Down syndrome and their siblings. The group meets and does activities and exercises one day each week. It could include bingo, a scavenger hunt or playing catch.

Richard Woodbury/CBC
Richard Woodbury/CBC

He said the wisdom of those coaches changed his life. "No matter what I do with my life, some part of it's gonna be volunteer work," he said.

Bélanger spent the first 2½ seasons of his major junior career playing for the Ottawa 67's. For most of his time there, the head coach was André Tourigny, a former Halifax Mooseheads head coach who now coaches the NHL's Arizona Coyotes.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tourigny said he's "extremely proud" of Bélanger.

"I think there's no better reward than seeing your athletes, the person you coach, turning into that kind of a person," he said in a recent phone interview from Toronto when the Coyotes were in town to play the Maple Leafs. "That's 10 out of 10."

Tourigny said he stresses community involvement for many reasons. One is that he thinks hockey players are role models.

"When you have the power to help people and to change lives, I think it's an unbelievable power," said Tourigny.

Nick Pearce/Dalhousie University
Nick Pearce/Dalhousie University

He said that while volunteer work won't help improve hockey skills, it will help build their self-confidence.

"Because when you see those people, what they go through in their life, and they're resilient and they never quit, it's tough to feel sorry about yourself," said Tourigny. "So now when you [face] adversity, you're way more resilient."

Richard Woodbury/CBC
Richard Woodbury/CBC

During the 2021-22 season, Bélanger was traded to the Kingston Frontenacs. He was sent to skate one day with the participants of a program called Extra Awesome. This program paired student volunteers from Queen's University with kids with Down syndrome.

Student Madison Cooper helps run the program at the university. She remembers Bélanger's first volunteer session vividly. The team filmed it.

"You could tell his passion and you could tell his easy ability to just, like, connect with these children," she said.

When Bélanger wrapped up his major junior career with the Frontenacs a year ago, he decided he'd go to Dalhousie University to study kinesiology and play hockey. But he also wanted to set up a chapter of Extra Awesome at the university.

Getting that running meant sorting out things like insurance and finding a space, volunteers and participants. Cooper has helped him with this.

The program launched in late January and meets for one hour on Sundays in a room at the Studley gymnasium.

Stephanie Carr has brought her three kids to Extra Awesome.

The Beechville, N.S., mom's middle child, Kayla, 9, has Down syndrome and is non-verbal. She said she's told her youngest child, Dylan, 7, that he doesn't have to come, but he insists on it.

"He's not always in the same group as Kayla, but just his presence makes her more comfortable," said Carr. "And it's just good for them to be around other families who also have kids with special needs because they're not really around those other kids as much."

Richard Woodbury/CBC
Richard Woodbury/CBC

She said parents also benefit from the program.

"It's great for me just to be around other parents who have kids with similar needs because we talk about what we're going through," she said. "And … it's not very often we get to talk to someone who's going through exactly the same thing as us."

The weekly sessions have attracted around a dozen participants.

At a recent session, it was hard to tell whether the volunteers or kids were having more fun.

Looking ahead

While the program will run until the end of the university term, Bélanger hopes they will do some summer activities, such as a beach outing.

Bélanger said the three things he looks most forward to are school, hockey and the program.

"But if there's one thing that I don't want to live without, it would be this program," he said.

Richard Woodbury/CBC
Richard Woodbury/CBC

Bélanger is unsure what life holds after his studies finish, but he hopes Extra Awesome will live on.

He said it sounds selfish to talk about the joy the program brings him.

"It makes you feel rewarded and you should feel good about doing this kind of stuff," he said. "But at the end of the day, you understand that this is affecting something bigger than yourself and that's what it's all about really."

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