BEN Crocker feels a very close association with Korumburra.
The young Collingwood footballer still has cousins in the area and it was here that his father Paul’s prodigious sporting talent was first recognised, as a footballer and particularly as a cricketer.
So, it was something of a homecoming for him when he visited St Joseph’s Primary School last Wednesday as their special guest speaker.
He was there at the invitation of three of the school’s students; Finn Donohue, Jake Fowles and Jack Crocker, one of his cousins.
They were interested in his experiences at Collingwood, for sure, that his best mates are Jordan De Goey and Brayden Maynard, that he admires Scott Pendlebury, that he would love to have played with Dane Swan and, surprisingly, that he admires Richmond as a team.
But he was visiting the school for another, much more important and compelling reason; to talk about his father’s early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, at the age of 53, when he was 17 years old.
The students, at the encouragement of grade six teacher David Forbes, had chosen early-onset Alzheimer’s as their “inquiry subject” in first term, deciding to run a lunchtime fundraiser, and thanks to Jack’s connection, to invite Ben to school to speak about it.
They couldn’t have imagined how spectacularly successful their initiative would prove to be.
Not only did they raise $500 for Dementia Australia, for whom Ben has been appointed an ambassador, charging their classmates for a hotdog lunch and drinks donated by Aldi, and an impromptu skills session on the oval but they also heard a heart-wrenching account of the impact of the disease on Ben’s father, himself and the Crocker family.
It’s a subject that’s very close to the heart of the school’s principal Michelle Charlton whose father, Barry Soderland of Foster, and family went through exactly the same thing some 15 years ago.
“It’s exactly what happened to dad,” said Michelle afterwards.
Tears rolled down Michelle’s face, standing at the back of the classroom, as Ben described the progression of the disease over the past four years to the point now where a smart, easy-going, talented and popular guy can’t even go to the toilet by himself. It’s tragic.
And Ben admits that it still gets the best of him at times, while he’s helping his mum, Vicki, to take care of Paul.
But it’s been so much better, he says, since he revealed the problem to his mates at Collingwood, and the community at large, earlier in the year through his role as an ambassador.
“I’ve been really close with my dad. He’s been a massive influence on me. Always at my games, driving me to training and the one to give me some honest feedback about how I was going.”
All that came to a shuddering halt not long after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when Ben was in year 12.
“He would have been proud if he knew I was playing for Collingwood. He came to my first game, against Carlton, but other than that he wouldn’t even know.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s really tough. I don’t enjoy it,” he said, explaining that when his father gets confused, he can become aggressive.
“Mum has been told it will eventually kill dad.”
The family has carers in during the day but with Paul needing 24/7 care, it’s down to Vicki and Ben to take care of all his needs at other times.
Ben admits this can be hard, especially given the rigors of his chosen career but he says Collingwood and his team mates have been fantastic.
And he also says it’s been a lot better since he came on board with Dementia Australia as an ambassador.
“I’ve no doubt they’ll find a cure. They’ve already had some breakthroughs thanks to the support of the community.
“If I can help create awareness through my association with Collingwood, that’s a real positive.”
The hot dog lunch and skills session was a great way to finish Ben’s visit, and he was so generous with his staying for almost four hours and offering to show the kids around Holden Centre when they come to town.
The kids have come up with some amazing inquiry subjects during term one, identifying other ways they can “give back” by raising awareness.
“They had a vet in talking about looking after your pets.
“They’re going to Hillside Lodge to work with the elderly.
“And some kids are designing a website to focus attention on what’s available for youth in the area,” said Mrs Charlton.
“It’s all part of a new approach to teaching with personalised learning,” she said.
You can’t help feeling proud of the kids, and that goes for Ben too, and grateful to the teachers. Well done.
Why living with Alzheimer’s is black and white