Crowds of people are expected to fill the narrow streets of Ireland in coming months. In 2013, people throughout the country will get a glimpse of street handball, a noncontact game that can be played by up to eight people at a time. And if the Irish Olympic Handball Association (IOHA) has its way, thousands of Irish citizens will step up for a throw themselves.

On November 14, Coca-Cola Ireland's Thank You Fund announced that it will award €25,000 to the IOHA to help finance a series of street handball seminars and tournaments. The Thank You Fund, which was established in May 2011, coinciding with Coca-Cola's 125th anniversary, recognizes and supports projects that promote active lifestyles and positively impact the quality of life in communities throughout Ireland. Over the past two years, the Fund has provided a total of €250,000 to 26 organizations.

"Our mission is to thank consumers for their loyalty by giving back to the local community," says Jennifer Heaphy, Public Affairs and Communications manager of Coca-Cola Ireland.

Team handball was developed in Denmark and is popular in much of Europe, but keeps a lower profile in the United States. Not to be confused with the game frequently played in American health clubs, team handball more closely resembles basketball, with players dribbling and passing the ball up the court. But instead of shooting the ball into a basket, players hurl it past a goalkeeper, as in soccer or hockey. The game has been played at the Olympic level in Ireland since the 1970s.

This year, the Fund also distributed €10,000 to each of 10 groups that offer programs such as water-based exercise for those with arthritis, intergenerational dance and percussion, and a surf school for autistic youth and adults.

But the big winner is the handball association, which has planned an ambitious program to encourage people to raise their heart rates and to give the indoor sport broader exposure by taking it to the streets. The Fund even recognized IOHA's plan as the program best positioned to mobilize large groups of people to get involved and active by introducing them to a new and exciting form of exercise.

"We were confident we had a good proposal," says Lisa O'Hagan of the IOHA, "but it was a surprise that we were the overall winner."

Group in Ireland

Getting Youth into the Street

IOHA intends to reach 10,000 young people and 200 teachers and youth group leaders across Ireland by rolling out a nationwide Street Handball Seminar series.

"Street handball is one of the easiest games to teach," says O'Hagan. "There will be an introduction to the game, which will be given by an IOHA Street Handball Tutor before the sessions begin. This will allow everyone to learn the game together."

Street handball is a bit different from the indoor version. "The game is played with a soft ball that you cannot dribble," says O'Hagan. "The key to the game is catch, pass, throw. It teaches players spatial awareness of each other and how to move the ball between players in order to score a goal."

In 2011, IOHA did a trial run in Limerick, teaching the game to 25 teachers who led sessions for more than 400 children in their schools. The result? One of the most successful participation programs in Ireland.

After the success of the pilot program, IOHA was eager to expand the street handball series but didn't have the resources to take it too far.

The Thank You Fund gives IOHA those much-needed resources. "We had planned to do street handball in certain areas throughout Ireland," says O'Hagan, "but the funding now allows us to do so much more."

“The Coca-Cola Thank You Fund is gaining great momentum, and this year’s response has been overwhelming," says Heaphy. "We received over 200 applications from across Ireland, all clearly demonstrating the very valuable work that is being done in communities to encourage more physical activity in all forms."

A Winning Bid

Both the public and a judging panel selected the winning recipients.  When Coke announced a shortlist of 45 in September, the public was able to vote throughout the month. At the same time, a judging panel scored the 45 organizations. The public vote and the judging panel vote each accounted for 50 percent of the final result.

“Out of the entries received, the 45 that made the shortlist were those that either had a new or innovative idea or were ones that we felt have the potential to have a positive impact on larger groups of people in communities across the country," Heaphy says. "We hope the funding that is being made available will be used to fund projects that will have a long-term and sustainable benefit."

The judging panel for this year’s Fund included experts and promoters of active lifestyles, from personal trainers to rugby players, as well as representatives from Coke, The Wheel and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, organizations that operated the Fund in partnership with Coca-Cola.

"As a fitness professional, I was thrilled when this year’s theme of ‘promoting active lifestyles’ was chosen for the Fund," says fitness expert Karl Henry, a member of the judging panel. "It has been incredibly heartening to see the amazing work that is being carried out by community groups on the ground to encourage those around them to get more active. The winning projects were chosen on the strength of their sustainability, the number of people they could impact and the potential long-term benefits for communities."

Michael Ring, Ireland's minister of state for tourism and sport, says, "I very much look forward to seeing the various initiatives come to life through the support of the Fund over the coming 12 months.”

In addition to the top prize awarded to the Irish Olympic Handball Association, the following groups each received €10,000 for their own programs to encourage active, healthy lifestyles:

The Alzheimer Society of Ireland

Arthritis Ireland

Autism Initiatives NI

Ballina Boxing Club

Ballyduff AFC

CoisCeim Dance Theatre Ltd

Fortwilliam & Macrory Presbyterian Church

Navan Community Ltd.

Northern Ireland at Play

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