Special-needs kids see new horizons

10/08/2013 1:46 PM

10/08/2013 1:47 PM

When a child has special needs, finding recreational activities for him or her can be difficult.

A new program with Sporting Blue Valley is aiming to open up opportunities for these kids.

Called TEAMSoccer — Training Enthusiastic Athletes with Mentors — the program is giving 25 kids ages 5 to 18 a chance to practice soccer skills with volunteers for an hour on six Saturdays in September and October at the Overland Park Soccer Complex. All the participant spots are full for this session, but organizers say they hope to offer the free program again in the spring.

The kids, who have mental and/or physical disabilities, come to the program with all different skill levels.

“For some kids, the goal is just to get them to touch the soccer ball a certain number of times,” said Carah Berry, a Sporting Blue Valley soccer coach and a teacher at the Kansas School for the Deaf, who is using her experience with special needs children to plan a curriculum for the program.

Activities might include dribbling underneath a raised parachute or practicing a simple scrimmage, depending on the age and ability of each child.

Kathy and Dave Pinter of Leawood knew their son used to enjoy soccer when he was younger. Asperger’s syndrome, Attention Deficity Hyperactivity Disorder and other issues make it difficult for 15-year-old Kevin Pinter to play the game with his peers now.

“He doesn’t like to do new things, yet he loves sports,” said Kathy Pinter.

The first week, Kevin was uncomfortable with the new setting and didn’t want to leave the bleachers for the field. But when he did try the activities with the volunteers, he felt at ease very quickly.

“(Kevin) said, ‘I can tell they’re letting us score,’ and I said, ‘But did you like that?’” said Kathy Pinter.

Kevin did, and his mom can’t say enough about the gentle encouragement of the volunteers, many of whom are local high school and college students.

Nine members of the Blue Valley West girls’ volleyball team came out to help.

“I got to walk around and see my kids in a different light,” said their volleyball coach, Terry Flynn. “It was really special to see them making a good experience for the kids who were involved.”

Organizer Tom Gorczyca said the idea for the program came from a similar one in St. Louis, called the Special Needs Soccer Association, where his grandson played for two years. He and friend Mike Eagan approached Sporting Blue Valley with the program proposal, and its board of directors voted to support it.

It’s important for the players “to be able to be out there on the turf, where they see their brother and sisters play,” Gorczyca said.

Parent Kevin Miller of Overland Park agreed, saying that his 6-year-old daughter Ashtin, who has Down syndrome, doesn’t see anything different about what she does at TEAMSoccer than what her older brother and sister do when they come to the fields to play with their soccer teams.

“She sees them playing sports and cheers them on,” Miller said. “She likes to play with the (practice) cones, but they get her kicking the ball around, too.”

The players’ enjoyment is rewarding for the volunteers.

“I worked with a boy named Hunter, and the whole time, he was smiling and just having a blast getting to play soccer and touch the ball,” said Barb Perry of Overland Park. “I know it means a lot to (the kids), and it’s a great program that’s desired and needed in the community.”

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