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Lupeole Feao prepares to deliver a League for Life session

Meet Lupeolo Feao, or Lupe as she is closely known, the sports administrator for the League for Life program in Tonga. The program utilises the influence of rugby league to enhance local communities while promoting gender equality, social unity, and providing more opportunities for participation, particularly for girls, women, and people with disabilities. 

Additionally, there is a Voice Against Violence component delivered in schools and communities to raise awareness and prevent gender-based violence.

Having joined the program in 2023, Lupe recently shared how she has witnessed it change perceptions among families.

"In our program, participants learn to work together as a team and improve their skills over time. I encourage them to not be afraid to talk to new teammates to enhance their teamwork. Over time, I've seen them become like a family, opening up more and feeling more confident."

"The program is helping to shift parents' views on their daughters playing rugby league, challenging the perception in Tonga that it's only for men."

Lupe firmly believes in the program's value as it offers vital encouragement to young girls, inspiring them to participate and succeed both on and off the field. Drawing from her own experience, she recalls the impact of her father's support, which provided her with the encouragement to pursue sports.

"Growing up, I always loved participating in sports, even those typically viewed as boys-only sports. I loved playing touch rugby with my brothers, and my dad used to take me to the community field to play alongside the boys."

"I would often be the only girl playing. It was unusual in our culture, but with my dad’s support and belief in me, I was able to participate and excel in those sports.”

With her father's encouragement, Lupe quickly became a standout athlete, firstly representing her high school in long-distance running events such as the 400m and 800m. Eventually, she transitioned to soccer and proudly represented the national U20 girls' soccer team during a tour to New Zealand in 2008, which also marked her first-ever trip overseas.

Lupe shared that with the confidence instilled by the League for Life program, numerous participants have chosen to advance to representing their schools in rugby league, seeing it as a pathway for further growth. She believes this is an opportunity to enhance development by allowing students to experience playing as a team and to tour overseas, thereby broadening their perspectives.

"My name Lupe means 'dove' in Tongan. Like the Lupe in the story of Noah, symbolising hope and discovery. I believe that by joining the program, I am also helping to motivate our youth to also experience what it is like to travel overseas for competitions."

"It helps in broadening their mindsets and will inspire them to return home and realise the importance of uplifting our community."

Since becoming involved in the program, Lupe has actively assisted her colleagues in coordinating international tours. One notable instance was her involvement in organising the U16 boys Tonga Rugby League team's tour to Australia last year.

In addition, she also contributes to delivering sessions on safe tackling, a skill she had to acquire herself following an injury she experienced.

"After football, I also tried rugby union. I joined a rugby team called Hihifo Tukuhali women's club. We were lucky to win six championships in a row. But one season, I got hurt and needed surgery. That kept me from playing for two years. When I came back, I had to learn to tackle safely to avoid more injuries. I then stopped playing in 2022."

Transitioning from player, she became the team’s communication and fundraising officer. Seeing her potential, a coach recommended she apply for the advertised role with NRL in Tonga.

"A team coach encouraged me to apply for a job at NRL in Tonga. I went for an interview and was fortunate to get the position. I started working in February 2023. At first, I was nervous because I didn't know much about rugby league.

"But my colleagues supported me, and I've learned a lot since then. Attending workshops and doing League for Life coach training has helped me improve not only my rugby league skills but also how I communicate, especially with young people."

When asked about her favorite aspect of her role, Lupe said, "I find joy in capturing the impacts of our program, especially the benefits it's having on young girls. Witnessing the growth in confidence among the girls participating in our program is very fulfilling."

The League for Life program is delivered in partnership by NRL in Tonga, NRL, and Mai-5 with support from the Australian Government through Team Up.

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