Special-needs youth in Texas get a shot at soccer

MCALLEN, TX The mother smiled and cheered, but the young player didn't celebrate: She ran back to her position and waited for the ball to come her way before kicking it again.

That brought more cheering from her coaches and family. "She tells her friends that she plays soccer," Ramirez said. "This is her game."

What may not have been apparent by looking at the young player, clad in her uniform as she chased the ball, was that she has cerebral palsy, a condition that can involve brain and nervous system functions such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing and thinking.

"She loves soccer and likes to practice, so we got her a ball," Sara's mother said, recalling the time before her daughter could play organized sports. "When her brother would play, she would sit and watch the game."

Sara's twin brother, Erik -- who plays for a team in the McAllen Youth Soccer Association -- said he is happy to see his sister on the soccer field, too.

That opportunity was made possible by a new league within the association that is devoted to children with special needs.

For about five weeks, children with disabilities -- ranging from cerebral palsy to mental retardation to muscular dystrophy -- met every Saturday at De Leon Middle School's soccer field, said Paula Hamilton, the office manager for MYSA who started the special-needs program.

"They don't have the opportunity to participate in organized sports," Hamilton said. "Most of the time, they get to sit on the sidelines watching.

"We decided to have something for them," she said. "This is a special day for them."

The first game, in early March, drew several players, but by late March, there were 42 children of various ages taking part.

The soccer association, which in addition to the special-needs league has more than 800 players in its various competitive teams and age groups, provides the special-needs players with team jerseys and shorts, explained its director, Gary Hamilton, Paula Hamilton's husband.

The players in Sara's league are split up by age and individual needs. Each player is assigned one coach, who is constantly by the child's side to ensure his or her safety.

For the children with the most severe needs, the coach pushes the player's wheelchair as the child chases a beach ball-sized soccer ball.

"When you see the smiles on their faces, you know this is something they love," Paula Hamilton said.

While the season ended this past weekend, the special-needs teams will be available for the fall season, which kicks off Sept. 15.

"Many parents don't get involved in their child's lives," said Ramirez, Sara's mother. "We should be very involved and enjoy new experiences with them."

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