Special needs players enjoy the beautiful game
When Patti Wilson of Woolmarket gave birth to triplets that were four months premature, they weren’t expected to live. Now the 17 year olds are playing soccer.
“They’ve been exceptions to the rules,” Wilson said.
Children born that premature who survive “typically had severe, profound disabilities,” and her children are no exception. “Autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, the list goes on and on,” she said about two of the three. One of the triplets, Jenna, has caught up with her peers and is no longer considered disabled, thanks to intensive therapy and hard work.
The other two, Jake and Jordan, have “lifetime disabilities, but they’re healthy. They’re able to come do this,” she said before a recent practice. “Of course there are kids who are a lot more disabled than them who are able to do this. That’s the beauty of this — it’s adapted to their levels.”
The Wilsons have a fourth child, 8-year-old Katie, who is not disabled.
Patti and her husband, Kenny, wanted their children to get involved in extracurricular activities. That coincided with Allen Pilcher’s efforts to organize the Mississippi Coast Special Needs Soccer Association.
Now the three of them are in their eleventh year running the league that provides an athletic and social activity for children who might not otherwise have one. They spend eight months securing sponsors and recruiting volunteers and players for the ten-week season.
“My wife call this my second job,” said Pilcher, who used to coach his son in the D’Iberville recreational league.
Providing opportunities to play
“When we started, so many of these children had never played any athletic things at all, no dance class, very little social activities,” Patti Wilson, 49, said. “They’re not typically invited to the birthday parties.
“When I first founded the league, I realized there were a lot of kids who weren’t getting to participate in team sports,” said Pilcher, 56. “They would sit on the sidelines and watch their siblings play.”
Parents think, “well maybe my kids can’t play soccer, they can’t kick the ball, but the way we tailor the game down to their level, they realize that their kids can play soccer,” Pilcher said.
“Our goal was to make it as typical an experience as possible,” Patti said. Players gather at the Bobby Eleuterius Sports Complex in D’Iberville on Tuesday nights for practice and Saturday morning for games.
The league is open to children from the six southernmost counties age three and older. Players are divided based on their ability, and volunteer coaches, some of whom are special education teachers and therapists, give the players lots of attention.
Pilcher said he couldn’t do it without the Wilsons’ help.
“Her passion for the program is probably just as great if not more so than mine,” said Pilcher of Patti Wilson. “She loves helping all the parents.”
“When she walks on the field, while I’m still the president, everything out there belongs to her. I typically stay out of her way.”
“We teach life skills in addition to soccer skills,” said Pilcher, who is a certified coaching instructor for US Youth Soccer’s TOPSoccer program.
The Outreach Program for Soccer was created by the national organization to give children with physical and mental disabilities access to play the sport.
For many of the families, just getting to the field can be a challenge. “Sometimes just getting their children out here is a battle” for the parents, Patti said. “They still have meltdowns on the way, and it can change everything very quickly.”
While “every coach wants to have a practice plan,” said Kenny Wilson, “that can change in a heartbeat, so you’ve got to be flexible.”
Helping the parents, too
Patti said they want to make things as easy as possible for the parents. “We try to let our parents sit down and relax,” she said. “They have enough on them.”
The trio revels in watching the players grow.
“We’ll see kids come out that may be withdrawn, may be shy, not really active,” Pilcher said. “They come out and they start interacting with their peers and other players just like them. They come out of their shell and they actually become more normal.
“We see a difference in almost every player that comes across this field,” he said. This year there are 54 players in the league, but Pilcher wants to see it grow.
“The parents are thrilled,” added Patti Wilson.
Adam Nash of Gulfport said the league has made an “unforgettable impact on my family.” His five-year-old daughter, Abigale, had her right leg amputated when she was one, making most sports activities seem out of reach for her. She now has a prosthetic leg and runs and plays with the rest of the children in the league.
Her face beams when she is on the field.
Nash is putting on a raffle to help raise money for the league. Nash, owner of ACE Designs that creates custom wooden art, is giving away ten $100 gift certificates. The drawing will be held Dec. 16. Last year, Nash raised $1,300 for the league.
“Their volunteers work diligently with each family,” Nash said. “to not only ensure that each child’s special needs are taken care of, but to make sure the kids are having fun.”
Raffle for the league
- Ten winners will receive $100 ACE Designs gift certificates
- Tickets are $5 each or five for $20
- Drawing will be held live on the ACE Designs Facebook page Dec. 16
- For tickets, contact ACE Designs on Facebook Messenger, by email at email@example.com or call Adam Nash at 937-477-6179
- All proceeds will be donated to the MCSNSA
About the series
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.