Soccer program gets disabled kids in the game – Statesman Journal
As a 6-year-old with cerebral palsy, Sierra Bennett had few activities available.
Finding a sport that she could play was as much of a challenge as finding one in which she felt accepted.
What she found was a bunch of high school boys who love to play the game of soccer with any child who shows up.
Bennett has been as much a presence over the past decade at the youth soccer program for children with physical and mental challenges at the Salem Indoor Soccer Center as North Salem boys soccer coach Rich Swartzentruber, who has brought his teams along to put on the program for the past 17 years.
âItâs awesome,â said Bennett, now a 17-year-old junior at McKay. âIt gives me a chance to go and do something after school. Thereâs not much I can go and do because I am disabled and I have obstacles.
âItâs really good and I really, really like it.â
For most children kicking a ball through a series of cones in a drill isnât a big deal, but it means a lot to her.
In the past 11 years there have been times when Bennett showed up in a wheelchair and in a cast from her waist down after a surgery.
The North Salem players pick the wheelchair up and carry it on the field so she can kick an oversized ball.
There have been times when Bennett plays soccer from her walker.
There are times when she plays without a support device and when she gets so tired from running up and down the field she has to lean on the sideboard for support.
Sometimes she falls down, but she pops back up with a smile on her face and keeps playing.
âIâve seen her progress through time with the surgeries sheâs had and getting more able and working hard and just the determination that sheâs had all these years, and other kids, too,â said Swartzentruber, North Salemâs head coach for 23 years.
âBut likewise itâs so important for my kids, my players, because it gives them a chance to give something back and it gives them a different perspective of sports.â
To a child in a wheelchair, the act of putting on a yellow or red penny so they can be a part of a team can be a meaningful thing in itself.
The physical skills or abilities of the children who participate in the program doesnât matter because theyâre all treated as equals.
When Corazon Baricio, a senior at McNary scored a goal, he lifted his penny over his head in celebration as he ran back down the field with the ball in his hand, receiving high fives the entire way.
There were smiles because everyone knew he was having fun.
âWe just want them to have fun and pass the ball just like regular kids and just play soccer,â North Salem junior Sergio Villazana said.
The program grew out of a TOPSoccer program that Swartzentruber led as part of his association with Capital Futbol Club years ago.
The programâs association with those groups ended long ago, but Swartzentruber wanted to keep the program going.
It runs for six weeks in the fall for an hour at 6 p.m. Wednesday nights, and some years goes on in the spring.
At the end of each season, Swartzentruber hands out certificates to the children and treats them to cookies, juice boxes and oranges.
âAnd it also comes at a time when heâs in season with his team,â said Vernon Daniel, manager of Salem Indoor Soccer Center. âAnd heâs a teacher and heâs got papers to grade.â
Not only does the program bring the children with disabilities out of their normal social circles, it brings the North Salem players out of theirs.
Without much prompting, they figure out how to interact with the children as players and coaches on a level they otherwise never would.
âIt definitely helps us grow,â said junior Gerardo Gutierrez. âIt feels good to give back. It gives them an opportunity to see that thereâs good people out there.
âThere was a kid out there and he was asking for our Snapchats. He wanted to get to know us. Itâs great to get to know these people.â
Swartzentruber encourages his players to help out with the program but doesnât require it.
Long after North Salemâs season is over in mid-November, a time when many could be playing club soccer or doing other activities, the players keep showing up.
âSoccerâs over now and itâs not like I have to pry them to come,â Swartzentruber said. âThey just say, âOh, yeah, yeah, weâre coming.â A lot of them come, and itâs fun to see them out there because they adapt really quickly to figure out how they ought to play.
âTheyâre really good at figuring out how they ought to be. Thatâs kind of nice for me to see that as well. The developmentas they come more and more often they get a different perspective, and theyâre really nurturing.â
Any semblance of North Salemâs players trying to appear cool melts away when they start working with the children.
They make over-exaggerated motions in trying to dive to stop goals, and they always fail.
âWe know what it means to them,â said North Salem junior Francisco Garibay. âI would have loved it if a high school kid came up to me when I was a little kid and played with me. It feels good to have that attention, you know.â
On a typical night the children and players arrive around 6 p.m., everyone stretchs and jogs for a few minutes of warm-up, they do a kicking drill or two and play two 10-minute halves of soccer.
The program is free and always has been.
The Salem Indoor Soccer Center donates the use of the field and Swartzentruber and his players volunteer their time .
âWhen you have a child with a disability, the financial burden that you have for the rest of your life, for your childâs life, is incredible,â Daniel said.
âAnd for us to just help so they can get out, sometimes itâs a break for the parents that they get an hour where they can mentally just check out and pause and whatever, which is good for the parents because Rich and the kids just take the kids.â
In theory the program is supposed to be for children ages 5 to 18, but age doesnât matter much. If someone who is slightly older or younger arrives, theyâre welcomed .
When siblings or friends of a disabled player show up, theyâre encouraged to put on a penny and play along with everyone else.
The participation numbers of the disabled players varies, but this fall there were around five children for every session.
Children who are paralyzed have come and children with asthma have come, but whatever the disability they are made to feel like a member of the team and given every chance to have fun.
âItâs such a good chance for her to get the socialization, but socialization thatâs her choice, not these are the people that youâre stuck with all the time so you have to go hang out with them,â said Kathleen Bennett, Sierraâs mother. âThis is socialization that she gets to choose, and she decides when she wants to come.
âThe kids that have disabilities, much, much of their life is decided for them. Much of their structure is not of their own choosing.â
Soccer is a sport that is easily accessible to any interested youth, but for youths with disabilities it can be a challenge to find a place to play.
Some of the children donât have the motor skills â or the opportunity â to play a sport such as golf.
But the accessibility of soccer makes it the perfect avenue for ease of entry for any child.
âItâs awesome,â said Christopher Racine, a seventh grader at Claggett Creek Middle School.
Swartzentruber is a gentle-mannered, gray-bearded coach who reminds you of the wise teacher who never judged you but pushed you to try to try harder in class.
His easy-going manner rubs off on his players as they work with the children.
Their interaction with the kids is a big part of why heâs kept the program going as long as he has.
And he tells the same jokes he has for years.
âItâs just as good for my kids as for them,â Swartzentruber said.
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6701 or Twitter.com/bpoehler