“Mom, Mom! Look at me, Mom!”
Words of excitement coming from a child with special needs who is finally able to play a sport with his peers is music to his mother’s ears.
“Hi honey, I see you,” she says. “Good job!”
After years of struggling to find an appropriate special needs athletic program for her son, Ryan, Sabine Ohling couldn’t be happier her son is participating in the new STAR Sports program at the Corvallis Sports Park (CSP).
“Think of it like Special Olympics for children with disabilities,” says CPHHS Exercise and Sport Science student and STAR Sports initiative lead Eric Steensen. “We’re creating a soccer league that is adapted to the individual’s special needs.”
STAR Sports is kicking off with open gym days during the first season to familiarize children with the field and volunteers. There, participants work on basic skills such as running, jumping, kicking and throwing by playing sports including soccer and kickball.
“It’s such a great program,” says Gail Eby. “I haven’t seen my grandson laugh and run around like he’s been doing here in such a long time. It just warms my heart.”
Eric, who volunteered for the college’s IMPACT program (Individualized Movement and Physical Activity for Children Today), is using what he learned there and in class to develop STAR Sports.
“I want to make these children’s lives more enriched,” he says. “They don’t have as many options as others do, and this is such a great way for them to play the games they see other children playing with no judgment. That’s why I wanted to get involved.”
STAR Sports is currently modeled after IMPACT, but starting next term, organizers plan to implement more of a soccer league-type feel to the program, including one day each week of practice and one day of games.
“This is super,” says parent Brandy Foster. “We’re trying to find ways for my daughter to fit into her community, and I feel like watching and playing sports here will help her participate with others as well. I’m very excited.”
To ensure that children receive quality instruction, graduate students involved with IMPACT will help train STAR Sports volunteers. IMPACT faculty, TOPsoccer – a community-based training and team placement program for young athletes with disabilities – and the owner of the Sports Park have also offered guidance.
“It sounds like a great program, and there is definitely a need for sport opportunities for local children with disabilities,” says IMPACT Co-director Simon Driver. “Our graduate students running IMPACT have a lot of experience that they can share with the STAR volunteers, and we are excited to collaborate now and in the future. It’s great that Corvallis Sports Park is involved – community agencies play such an important role in making sports accessible for kids with disabilities.”
The soccer games will be played like a regular game, but with coaches and volunteers on the field to help direct and encourage the children. The focus isn’t on winning or losing, rather improving their motor skills and learning how to play as a team.
“It isn’t going to be intense like an ordinary soccer game,” says Alli Stangel, co-president of OSU Enactus, a student community outreach group that is hosting the program. “It will be way more relaxed with a focus on everyone succeeding. When the ball comes to them a volunteer will be there to say, ‘OK, what are you going to do now? Take it down the field, kick it in the goal.’ We want them to be able to play with their classmates, to be included, learn more skills and have fun.”
Often, children with disabilities aren’t given the same opportunities as their peers, have never played on a team or worn a jersey. That will all change with STAR Sports.
“There’s really nothing like this in Benton County right now and that’s why we saw the need for this program and are so passionate about making this happen,” Eric says. “They’ve seen their siblings or friends or classmates out playing these sports and get frustrated because they don’t know why they can’t. Now they can.”
“My son is very athletic, loves everything with a ball, but doesn’t do well with the whole ‘organized’ game thing,” Sabine says. “This sounds like the perfect outlet for him to be able to use his athletic abilities and learn some of the game aspects while having fun. I have high hopes for this program.”
“I haven’t seen my grandson laugh and run around like he’s been doing here in such a long time. It just warms my heart.”
The facility provides an added bonus to the whole experience.
“A lot of these kids haven’t ever played on turf,” Alli says. “It’s not something they’re used to, it’s not their school gym and it’s not their playground. They’re going in and their eyes are huge they’re so excited. It’s like a little kid paradise.”
Blake Leamy, owner of the CSP, donated space for the program in an effort to keep costs down for parents.
“CSP has offered similar programs for disabled youth over the years and had very good success,” he says. “We like to give back to the community, and supporting this program is another way for us to do that. We also want to support OSU students with their educational journey, and the quality of students running the program is impressive. We hope to continue to support and help to grow the STARS program in the future.”
So far, dozens of volunteers have signed up to participate.
“It’s tough to gauge who has more fun, the kids or the volunteers,” Alli says. “We’re all having a blast. It’s one of those things where you immediately feel the reward.”
“These college students are incredible,” Gail says. “They’re interacting with the kids and keeping them engaged. It’s really cool to see.”
STAR Sports is open to all children with special needs, no matter their abilities. Plans for a tee-ball league are already in the works in order to accommodate children with physical disabilities who cannot play soccer.
The program is the result of an Oregon Social Business Challenge in which Alli’s business model to start a sports league with children with disabilities won first place. She realized her passion for helping children with special needs after seeing her friend’s younger sister who has Down syndrome become physically active in a similar league.
She enlisted Eric’s help due to his experience with IMPACT and his previous work at a ranch in Bend, Oregon, that specializes in equine therapy for children with special needs.
Together, the two hope to establish STAR Sports as a great place for children with specials needs to increase their physical activity and learn teamwork skills.
“I think this is the best way to make a difference,” Eric says. “I love that I can help this become something big and make a lasting impression before I graduate from Oregon State.”
For more information about the program, contact Eric at (541) 410-8368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.