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EVERYBODY PLAYS THIS GAME SPECIAL-NEEDS KIDS HAVE NEVER-BEFORE FUN.

Byline: DENNIS McCARTHY

``Our motto is 'Everybody plays,' but everybody wasn't playing.''Nanette Hauser, director of the VIP league for AYSO Region 33 in the San Fernando Valley.

No, they weren't. There was a very important segment of the population - special-needs kids - who were being shut out from playing youth soccer only because no one thought they could.

Well, they can, and they are. See for yourself over at Balboa Park in Encino every Saturday morning, where some of the most inspiring sports teams in town are packing them in.

Forget the Dodgers, Lakers and Kings. If you like to cheer - I mean really cheer - and leave a sporting event feeling great inside, check out the Red Hot Gophers playing the Balboa Stars.

Let the Winners soccer team trying to score a goal on the Dragons touch your heart. Let the Rock 'n' Rollers lining up across from the Blue Lightning make you feel like you've just been invited to something very special.

Because you have. The hottest sports ticket in town. The VIPs. Very Important Players.

Nanette Hauser knew it wasn't right. All the parents did.

Why did able-bodied kids get to play and have all the fun while the special-needs kids never get invited to the party?

Who says that with a little help - maybe an older buddy to hold their hand - a child with Down Syndrome couldn't be out there on that youth soccer field kicking the ball around and having fun?

They even had soccer balls with bells in them now, so why couldn't the blind kids play, too? They didn't have to see the ball to kick it. They could hear where it was.

So, to their credit, three years ago the parents in AYSO Region 33 reached out to the schools, regional centers and doctors who serve children with special needs and invited those kids to play in their league, too.

The first year, 30 kids with special needs showed up - enough to field three teams. The second year, 60 kids showed up. This year, 72 special- needs children are playing on six teams with the help of buddies.

Teenagers like Nicole Thompson, a student at Montclair Prep, spends part of her Saturday helping 4-year-old Jorge Lara, a Down syndrome child, wind his way down the field kicking a soccer ball.

A few yards away, on a field for the older kids, Eryn Albright, 15, of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, is helping 13-year-old Laura Betancourt, who is blind, run down the field kicking a soccer ball she can't see, but can hear.

Both teenage girls are here as part of their community service projects at school, but the lessons they've learned from their VIP special buddies are worth a lot more than any grade or extra credit they will earn at school, they say.

Nearby on another field, Matthew Nickel stands on the sideline watching his 6-year-old daughter, Kaylee, who has Down syndrome, hug her teenage buddy, Mayan Ruimy, after scoring a goal.

``You have no idea how much this has meant to my daughter,'' Matthew says. Being invited to the party with the other kids.

``Every morning Kaylee brings me her soccer bag, and I have to tell her not today, honey, soon. Well, today's the day. Just look at her.''

Look at all the VIPs. Every last one of them is smiling, laughing and having the time of their lives.

``It's my son's third year playing,'' Diane Sullada says, watching her 16-year-old Down syndrome child, Jason, wave to her as he warms up with his teammates on the Winners team.

Her son never wanted to do much outside the house before, she says. Now he can't wait to go to Balboa Park every Saturday morning to play with his VIP buddies.

``The truth is, if Jason wasn't here, he'd be at home playing his video games alone right now. And I'd be home with him instead of out here talking with all the other moms in the park.

``You don't know how much this means to so many families,'' she said.

Finally being invited to the party. Where everybody plays.

Dennis McCarthy, (818) 713-3749

dennis.mccarthy(at)dailynews.com

For more information on the VIP soccer program, call (818) 785-2353, or visit www.ayso33.org.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) Christian Castillejo, 8, center, who has Down syndrome, gets ready to score with his buddy, Juliet Roberts, 14, behind him, during a VIP AYSO Region 33 program at Balboa Park on Saturday morning.

(2) Tyler Wedeen, 9, left, who has cerebral palsy, gets help from buddy Nicolas Reitzin, 12, as part of a program that pairs special-needs kids with others without a disability to play soccer.

Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Special to the Daily News
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 9, 2005
Words:796
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