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Project REF kicks off to help low-income families pursue sports through officiating certification program

Referee shortages addressed by Project REF, a new pilot program

Hockey face off puck drop

A new program aims to get more referees into local sports while also helping low-income youth. // Shutterstock

It’s game time for an exciting new pilot program.

KidSport Calgary & Area has teamed up with the Calgary Flames Sports Bank, Hockey Calgary, and the Calgary Minor Soccer Association to launch a project to help low-income families score big.

Project REF aims to help qualified children pursue sports by offering them access to officiating courses, which will provide them with their certification as a referee and access to additional knowledge in their chosen sport while earning an income.

“We wanted to do more for the families and kids that we support,” says Kevin Webster, CEO of KidSport Calgary & Area and Calgary Flames Sports Bank.

“Helping kids is what we try to do every day.”

A learning curve

Webster and his team recognize that this pilot project will be a learning experience for everyone, but he doesn’t foresee any major challenges.

“We are going to stress patience with our sports partners and the families. We have to work with the field hockey community on when and where they offer the clinics,” Webster says.

“As we get through the first wave of families, we will use that learning to help crisp the program up in terms of making sure it’s as efficient and effective and easy to work through as possible.”

The success of the program will be measured based on the early interest from the community, the demand for officials, and the feedback they receive.

“We’re extremely thrilled with where it’s at already. The feedback we’ve received is a pretty quick acknowledgement that this program is needed,” Webster adds.

Addressing a critical need

Not only will Project REF help low-income families and children, but it also addresses a growing concern in Calgary, says Kevin Kobelka, executive director for Hockey Calgary.

It’s no secret there has been a ref shortage in Calgary, and the pandemic heightened that with a 25% decrease in the number of hockey referees in the city over the last two years.

“During COVID, we had a lot of people leave officiating and, after a two year absence, some senior officials chose not to come back,” Kobelka says.

“And because we didn’t operate for two years, we didn’t get the influx of young officials starting out, so we lost some and we didn’t gain any new ones.”

This shortage poses a challenge for organizations that rely on officials to keep games going and maintain fairness on the ice and the soccer pitch.

“I think Project REF is a great initiative that KidSport is doing,” Kobelka says.

“This is an opportunity to get kids into sport that want to stay in sport, and it helps organizations that are lacking officials.”

Possible expansion

Project REF has mainly been focused on hockey and soccer but there is potential for it to expand to other sports in the future.

“As we are coming to the end of our season, it’s a little bit tougher for us to get rolling, but soccer season is just kicking off so they’re probably going to be the first ones to see how it works,” Kobelka says.

“We will continue to work with our officials committee to see how we can support getting new people into it and hopefully run some spring clinics for officials in the game of hockey.”

The organization is looking to enroll around 25 students in the first round of courses, with employment to follow in mid-April post-graduation for the first outdoor games of the 2023 season.

Families can apply for the program through a submission of interest on KidSport's website.

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