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VIP soccer program gives special needs youths chance to try sport

Arianna zipped onto the soccer field at The Crossing Park in her souped-up electric wheelchair, with her father, Hector, trotting beside her. When the ball came her way, she bumped her foot plates against it, moving it skillfully down the field. The opposing players backed off to give her a clear shot.

After her goal, a collective cheer went up. Everyone, from both teams, congratulated her. Arianna (who, along with other members of the team, had her last name withheld at the request of the parents) broke into a huge smile.

Kylie held hands with her father, Dave, the entire game. She’s blind but wasn’t about to let that stop her. Her father guided her toward the ball, where she got behind it, drew back one leg and sent it shooting between the posts. Another goal, another round of “all right’s” and “way to go’s” filled the air.

Welcome to VIP soccer, a program for mentally and/or physically challenged children, run under the auspices of the American Youth Soccer Organization. VIP stands for Very Important Players.

At her goal, Kylie threw up her hands and shimmied in excitement.

“Every time she gets a goal, she does a little dance,” said Shelly, mother of a player and coordinator, whose husband, Jerry, is one of the coaches.

Their son is Jason, 16. He has autism apraxia and doesn’t verbalize a lot. He was not involved in sports before the VIP team.

“There are four or five kids who play on the team and go to his school,” Shelly said. “When he started sixth grade at New Horizons Academy, his best friend, Blake … was on the (team), so he wanted to start.”

He joined VIP about five years ago.

All 12 players are special needs children, with diagnoses such as Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. Their teams are the Orange Crush and the Blue Crystals, names chosen by the children based on the color of their uniforms.

The VIP soccer program began in Summerlin in 2004. Its season runs for eight to 10 weeks, depending on the time of year. Play lasts for an hour, made up of 10-minute quarters. At the end of each quarter, the players trotted to the sidelines for water or a freshly iced bandana. Parents gave up their seats so the players could rest.

“Did you see? I made a goal,” one child said, coming off the field.

Holly has two children on the VIP team — 17-year-old Matt and 13-year-old Anna. Both have tested on the autism spectrum.

“We’ve always been looking for some type of physical exercise for them — socially, too — because a lot of children with disabilities have a hard time with making friends or having any kind of extracurricular activity,” Holly said. “It’s been great for them. They get to run around and have fun.”

Back on the field, the players were silent, but the coaches kept up the chatter, calling out encouragement, congratulating a child on a crafty move. When the ball happened to roll in front of one boy, he hesitated as if processing what to do with it. The other players slowed down and waited for him. He drew back one leg and kicked it, eliciting a “That’s the way” from a coach.

The rules of the game were abandoned almost as soon as the program began.

“The good thing about this league is, there’s no pressure. We don’t even keep score,” Holly said. “Everybody roots for everyone. One time, one of the kids said, ‘Who won?’ and we said, “Everyone did.’ ”

The goalie ran out of his zone to scoop up the ball and walk back with it. The players merely waited. Such an infraction would have never occurred in another game, but for VIP soccer, it was only a momentary hiccup in the action.

“Good defense,” one of the parents called out.

It’s not only the children who benefit. The parents get to relax as much as the children. If a child has a meltdown, it’s just part of having a special needs child. All the other parents have been there and know what it’s like.

Sometimes a child will decide he’s had enough, walk off of the field in the middle of play and take a seat. No one makes a big deal of it.

“These kids have played together for years now,” Holly said. “They have come such a long way. My daughter used to just sit by the goalposts and pick flowers. Now she’s engaged in the game.”

Xander (short for Alexander) is 13 and very tall. He took the goalie position. His parents have worked with him to ensure that he’s gentle if there is any contact.

“As a parent, it’s an inspiring thing to watch every week,” Holly said. “You see the smiles on their faces. These kids would probably never get a chance to score a goal on a typical team or the chance to develop their skills like they do here. On another team, they might be a benchwarmer. Here, they’re a superstar.”

Holly recalled the battery of specialists they took their toddler to, in the hopes of some good news.

“They told us, other kids will have baseball, soccer. Yours will have therapy,” she said, adding that the doctors were not being flippant or mean, just realistic.

Hector said his 11-year-old daughter Arianna’s cerebral palsy keeps her wheelchair-bound. He said her face lights up when she’s playing soccer at The Crossing Park, 1111 Crestdale Lane.

“She’s happy and excited; she knows her games are on Saturday,” he said.
“… She loves being out here in the sun and being around other kids.”

Kelli, Xander’s mother, said, “The thing I like best about the league is, you see how the kids have progressed and, as the seasons go by, you can see how they get better. It makes us all feel like, ‘Oh, our kids can do this now.’ You see the little ones come in for their first season, and they don’t do so good, then they get more involved as they grow, and it’s fabulous.”

The cost for VIP soccer is $95 per player, per season. Financial assistance is available. The program is open to players age 4 or older.

Registration is scheduled from 6:30 to 8 p.m. June 20 and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 29 at the Willows Community Center, 2775 Desert Marigold Lane. However, registration for the VIP program does not close if space is available. To register a player after these dates, email vipcoordinator@lvsoccer.org.

For more information, visit lvsoccer.org/vip.aspx.

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 702-387-2949.

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