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Barrie Central grad making world of difference in parasport around the globe (VIDEO)

Jennifer Wong, who now lives in England, has been heavily involved in inclusive sport through her role with the International Paralympic Committee

From rugby to soccer, basketball to volleyball, and even track and field, Jennifer Wong competed in just about every sport when she was in high school.

The Barrie Central Collegiate graduate always knew she wanted a career that had something to do with sports, but she didn't know if it was to be a physiotherapy teacher or physical education teacher.

"I wanted to do something a bit broader," said Wong, who graduated from Central in 2003 and has an undergraduate degree in kinesiology from Western University.

Just how broad?

Wong would soon find a path that led her to inclusive sport or sport for people with disabilities and travels that have taken her everywhere from Trinidad and Tobago, to Belgium, to the United Kingdom and Africa.

More importantly, she found it was a way to make an impact. So much so that Commonwealth Sport Canada (CSC) presented her with the organization's Sport Development Award in recognition of her work as a SportWORKS Officer at the CSC's Annual General Meeting held in late-September.

The award recognizes Wong's outstanding contributions during an international placement with CSC and is given to a SportWORKS Officer who has made a significant contribution to the development of sport.

"It's a huge honour," said Wong, who currently lives with her partner and two-year-old son in London, England. "I didn't really expect to be receiving an award like this so early in my career. It's very nice to be recognized by Commonwealth Sports Canada because I haven't actually lived in Canada since 2008.

"I've been on the move since then, so it's really cool that (CSC) has been following my path and wanted to recognized me for the work I've been doing," she added. 

Wong was named a SportWORKS Officer in 2008 and was assigned to work as the inclusive development officer with Trinidad and Tobago's Alliance for Sport and Physical Education, where she was responsible for the expansion of inclusive community sport programs across the Caribbean.

"I think the thing that really set me on my path is in Trinidad I could really see how sport could be a tool or a catalyst to change policies and open up people's perceptions about disability, so I felt like getting into the programming side of things," Wong said. "I could help strengthen the infrastructure around Parasport to help make a difference in terms of opportunity for participation at all different levels."

Wong would go on to earn a master's degree in adapted physical activity from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, helping her land a job with the International Paralympic Committee, where she worked for the past six years.

"That was a great experience and really introduced me to a lot of different cultures," said Wong, who admits she was inspired by an article she read about former Canadian Olympic gold-medallist Heather Moyse and her placement with CSC. "I tried to understand what it's like to have an impairment and some of the difficulties and challenges people face around the world and the differences from Canada to the UK to Ghana to the Philippines, for example. Lots of differences, but also lots of similarities.

"I think sport is a nice way to bring people together and a way to change minds that the world of disability has a possibility to do. To work, to be part of the family, to have an education and I think sports are a great way to break down those barriers."

Wong moved to London in January where she joined Loughborough University to manage the Global Disability Innovation Hub's four-year project called Overcoming Stigma Through Paralympic Sport. Her commitment to the Commonwealth continues through her work with the CGF's Sport Development for Youth Working Group and she is currently leading a new collaborative project for the CGF in Africa.

"We're looking to bring coverage of Tokyo 2020 to different countries across Africa and Loughborough University is doing research around that in cooperation with some of the activities of the IPC just to see how parasport can be used as a tool to change perceptions and break down stigma towards disability in the African context," she said. "It's worked in the UK. It's worked in Rio, but Africa's not going to have the chance to have a Paralympic Games in the next 10 to 15 years so I wanted to see what other ways we could use parasport to influence that change."

The current project is set to end right after the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games in France and Wong is looking at what other things she could do along the way.

"Maybe be part of a board of a sport organization, or contribute to new knowledge in the industry by maybe doing a PhD," said Wong, who added she would love to one day find a new challenge in Canada and return home. "I'm just looking to see what else I could do alongside with this project at the moment."

Wong admits it seems like only yesterday she was playing rugby at Barrie Central. She would go on to play at Western University and even found opportunities after to take the field in Trinidad and Belgium.

She chuckles when she remembers telling her mom she wanted to put dancing behind her and wanted to play rugby.

"I eventually convinced her and the first game I got a black eye," she said with a laugh. "Rugby at Central was such a great springboard."

Sport has been a huge part of her life, says Wong. She's happy helping to influence the pathway for the next generation.

"It's very eye-opening," she said of her journey. "This path so far has given me the opportunity to experience Paralympic sport at the highest level at the Paralympic Games to very grassroots level, for example the work in Trinidad and Tobago.

"It is definitely inspiring and a good reason to get up and get to your desk in the morning."