*This story first appeared in The Budget’s May 9, 2018, Local Edition.
By Stacey Carmany
A Dover-based soccer program is giving area children and teens with disabilities opportunities to build relationships and self-confidence while improving their physical health and mental well-being.
Founded by husband and wife Rick and Lisa Stilgenbauer of Dover, Soccer4All is a six-week, non-competitive community soccer league designed to introduce boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 18 with physical, cognitive or developmental disabilities to the joy of playing soccer in a fun and open environment.
“Basically, our goal is to get active, make friends and have fun,” said Director Lisa Stilgenbauer. “That’s our goal, and that’s our motto.”
Soccer4All is a league of the Dover Soccer Association (DSA). The program is offered twice each year, once in the spring and once in the fall, with sessions held on Saturday mornings from 11 a.m. to noon at Deeds field in Dover.
At the start of each session, participants are divided into groups based on age and ability under the watchful eyes an experienced coach who has been background checked and cleared to work with children.
“We get kids of all age ranges, different ability levels,” said Coach Patrick Gerber, who is now in his third season with the program. “What we try to do is just tailor each practice to be super fun and engaging and have a ball at their feet.”
In addition, each player is also teamed with a middle school or high school-age volunteer who provides individualized support and attention. “Every player is paired with a buddy, and that’s kind of the magic of the system, they always have someone to pass with and practice with and have someone they know is going to be there to support them,” Gerber explained.
Stilgenbauer shared that the buddy system is designed not only to help the players develop soccer skills but also to give them opportunities to socialize and build lasting relationships. “Just the interaction with the buddy, it’s wonderful,” she said. “I have a couple girls that graduated that were buddies, and their players came to their house to see them before they went to prom.”
The arrangement can also have a positive impact on the buddies, according to Stilgenbauer. “The older kids, the buddies, they get something out of it, too,” she said. “They’re giving to somebody. They’re also seeing that you can’t take anything for granted. They’re thankful, and they learn patience.”
Among the current group of buddies is Juliet Booher, a sophomore soccer player at Dover who says she loves working with the players. “[It’s] just seeing how much fun they have, and it’s fun for me, honestly,” she shared.
There is also an advantage for parents and guardians, who are required to be in attendance during every session in which their child participates. “The buddy’s part is to stay with the player, so that way the parents can be on the sidelines like [for] a typical child,” Stilgenbauer explained. “Ordinarily, they would have to be with their child.”
After 30 minutes of practice time with their coaches and assigned buddies, the older players are given an opportunity to showcase their new skills during an informal game.
“Usually, a typical practice is we warm up. We do some drills, and we do an obstacle course. Then, we spend about a half hour just playing a game, and the buddies work with the players to basically be one unit where a middle school or high school student might trap the ball, hold it for them, give it to their player and then their player will pass or shoot from there,” Gerber explained.
Stilgenbauer noted that the game is held strictly for fun and is in no way, shape or form competitive. “It just gets them out and gives them a relationship with the ball, with their buddy,” she said. “Just the fact that we have them on the field is the whole goal.”
Leah Dunne of New Philadelphia is the mother of an 11-year-old son who has been taking part in the Soc- cer4All program every season for the last four years. She shared that the program is something her son looks forward to every season, and it’s also been a good way to get him to spend some time having fun outdoors. “This is a wonderful opportunity to get him out and going,” she said. “It’s a good safe environment for him to be with his peers and not feel different.”
Although enrollment is now officially closed for the Spring 2018 season, which began April 21 and runs through May 26, sign-ups will soon be getting underway for the Fall 2018 season that begins September 8. The registration fee is $25 per player and includes a jersey, soccer ball, and a participation award at the end of the season. Scholarships are also available for those who would like to participate but are unable to afford the registration fee.
The program is also in need of additional buddies to work one-on-one with players as well as sponsors to help fund the scholarships. For more info, call 330-343-6011.