by Lynn Mills

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VOL. 1 NO. 27 Encino Sun
DECEMBER 23-29, 2006

Very Important Players team unites special needs children through soccer

BY LYNN MILLS

The crowd cheered as grinning, nine-year-old Liam dribbled toward the goal and kicked the ball square into the net. Parents, teammates, referee – even the goalie and the rest of the other team high-fived him.

In this era of supercharged children’s sports this scene might sound unusual, but for the Very Important Players (VIP) in Encino, it’s just another fun game.

The VIP program, the first of its kind in the San Fernando Valley, is a division of American Youth Soccer Organization’s (AYSO) Region 33. It uniquely fields teams made up of children with special needs, giving them a chance to get out and compete at Balboa Park.

While disagreements and discord sometimes flare up during an overwrought game on a field nearby, the VIP games are an oasis of what’s best about sports. It’s the only place where players, parents, coaches, referees and opponents smile enthusiastically throughout the game – and afterwards.

Parents praise the program for giving their kids an enjoyable activity to look forward to, and say the exercise has helped improve their coordination. Several say their children have developed the ability to do more for themselves since participating in VIP.

Karen Gaytan says the program has totally changed her nine-year-old son Alfredo’s life. “He has a lot of confidence in himself. He fights for the ball and he is learning to be a team player, to let other kids also play.”

She relates that Alfredo, who has high-functioning autism, has a lot more friends at school now. “When they have autism, they see life in a box. VIP is really helping him get out of that little box,” says Gaytan. “He’s learning, and he’s opening his little box to let people come in and out. He has improved from not being able to play, to being able to play with the regular kids [at school] now.”

Gaytan says watching Alfredo play VIP has also had an effect on his older brother, Frederico, who plays soccer in a club league.

“At the beginning, he was, ‘I don’t want my brother to be there,’ and now he’s like, ‘Okay, next year, I’m going to be a buddy,’” a VIP on-field helper. “Now that he sees this group, he has developed compassion.”

For the first time, Alfredo and Frederico play soccer at home together like other siblings. “I get better and better because my brother teaches me,” Alfredo says proudly.

AYSO has had its VIP program for about a decade, and there are now an estimated 100 programs nationwide. Region 33 boys’ commissioner Steve Poretsky spearheaded adopting the program in Encino four years ago.

“We had almost 2,000 players here every Saturday at the park, and as boys’ commissioner, we had children with special needs that I had to turn away to other parks [that had VIP programs] because they just weren’t going to succeed on a mainstream team here,” Poretsky recalls. “I realized that we should start our own program.”

They had 36 players the first year, and that number has since nearly doubled.

The minimum age to participate is four-and-a-half, but there is no upward age limit, so even special needs adults can play. The bulk of the players have autism, ADD, or ADHD, but there have been players with cerebral palsy, visual and hearing impairments, Muscular Dystrophy, Downs Syndrome, developmental delays and other challenges.

No one is turned away. They use special equipment when needed, such as padding for wheelchairs, or balls with bells inside for the visually impaired.

Just like any other team, VIP teams have uniforms, play on regulation fields, and have coaches and referees. Players are assisted by “buddies,” usually older kids from mainstream teams who are matched up with a player one-on-one for the entire season. Buddies shadow the player on the fi eld, offering instruction and encouragement, and as Poretsky says, “They develop a marvelous relationship with the player over the course of the season.”

Both parents and coaches commend the buddies who assist the players. Some do it for high school community service requirements, but others, like fourteen-year-old Julian Ozen – a buddy for four years – do it out of the goodness of their hearts.

“I don’t really know what made me start, but once I had, it was a lot of fun. I come back each week because it’s always nice to see the buddies there. They’re always excited to see you no matter what,” says Ozen.

He smiles when recalling the challenges of the fi rst VIP player he assisted. “All he really wanted to do was kick the ball through my legs, so I would move back and he would just follow me until I finally got to the goal and he’d want to shoot by himself.”

Each week, a mainstream team – boys or girls, 11 years old and up – is matched to play against a co-ed VIP team.

“We brief those players before the game in terms of understanding the VIP players. The mainstream kids get it very quickly,” says Poretsky. “They know that the VIP team is out there to have fun first and foremost, to learn something about soccer, to have a social experience, and to get some exercise.”

Mainstream opponents generally take it easy on the VIP teams, and they’re often the ones who cheer the loudest when a VIP player scores a goal.

Despite physical challenges, some of the VIP players have marvelous ball handling skills and strong kicks. Poretsky remembers a child who didn’t let his crutches slow him down. “When you look at these players with crutches, one assumes they’re going to have a lot of trouble getting around,” he notes.

“This one player got out in the middle of the field and started running with these crutches, batting the ball with both his right and his left crutch as he was running, dribbling the ball around other mainstream players. He was fast as a deer. It was amazing, and people would just stop and look at him. It was quite a lesson, I think, to everyone on the field, about making judgments, number one, and number two, about what these kids can accomplish.”

Poretsky, now in charge of the VIP program for about 70 regions around Southern California, is working to develop 20 new VIP programs.

“Although we have 70 players here at Balboa Park, children and adults with special needs are estimated to be about 15 percent of the general population. I don’t know what those numbers translate to in the San Fernando Valley, but they’re large. VIP is a wonderful program. Everyone has fun and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.”

Gaytan shares his sentiments. “Everybody learns: the kids that come and help – the buddies – and the kids that have a need.

“I don’t call our kids disabled, I call them different. They have different abilities, not disabilities,” she continues. “We really need to make sure that the world knows that these kids…they’re people just like everybody else.”

Encino’s Region 33 is currently taking sign-ups for VIP and for all teams for the 2007 spring and fall seasons at www.ayso33.org.