Mom Starts Soccer Division for Children with Special Needs
by James Langford (January 2000)
As the father of a child with Tourette Syndrome who is also learning disabled, I have often been frustrated by attempts to mainstream my son into positive recreational programs. Aside from his summer camp, there have been few places that offer sports opportunities appropriate for his skill level. Most sports programs take place in a competitive atmosphere where children are caught up in judging each other's skill and agility - attitudes that are often fueled by parents.
Two years ago, my wife, Marcia Egger, started a soccer group in Manhattan for children with special needs, the VIP Division, which operates under the auspices of the West Side Soccer League, part of the nationwide American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). The VIP Division evolved relatively quickly and painlessly because another parent, Brenda Jordan, had already laid the groundwork. In the Spring of 1998, Brenda succeeded in organizing, with the support of the West Side Little League, a Challenger Division for children with special needs to play baseball. In addition to encouragement, Brenda provided Marcia with an existing group of players and candidates for coaches.
Marcia soon found that the national AYSO had its own unit dedicated to fostering such teams, the VIP League, and that there were training materials, suggestions, and a support network available. The West Side Soccer League (WSSL), which annually serves close to 3,000 children, and its Commissioner, Marc Friedman, welcomed the VIP initiative.
Marcia took on the task of recruitment, finding volunteer coaches, organizing schedules and implementing a fall season of games every Sunday. With the aid of the lists from Brenda's Challenger Division, and additional recruitment at special schools in the New York City area, seventeen children joined. Some of the dedicated coaches who had participated in the Challenger baseball program continued with the soccer group, and our two VIP teams were off and running - soon to get their kicks!
An interesting aspect of the VIP model is the use of "buddies" - non-disabled children - to work one-on-one with the more severely challenged children. As the buddy and the VIP team member work together during the season, a learning experience for both evolves. VIP Soccer is a place where supportive interactions between children are encouraged, competitiveness and winning are de-emphasized by the adults, and families have found a camaraderie that instills a sense of caring. Many of the same children now have had two spring seasons of baseball and two fall seasons of soccer, and, as a result, have demonstrated much growth - in skills, sportsmanship, and cooperation. Above all, they all love to play and look forward to the games.