Bright sunshine contributed to the success Sunday of a soccer clinic for special needs children at Highmark Stadium in Station Square, sponsored jointly by the Pittsburgh Riverhounds professional soccer team and the Watson Institute.
More than 100 children aged 6-19 with a variety of developmental disorders and their siblings received tips on how to improve their play from Riverhounds players and coaches.
"There are a lot of things we get dragged out to, but this is something we were genuinely excited about," said Kevin Kerr, 24, center midfielder.
Participating in the clinic was especially meaningful for defender Niko Katic, 26, because a cousin in his native Croatia has autism.
"To be able to put a smile on their faces makes you appreciate life a lot more," Mr. Katic said.
The idea for the clinic originated with Marla Cipko, then the director of business development for the Riverhounds.
"We wanted [Highmark Stadium] to serve the needs of the whole community," said Ms. Cipko, who is now director of regional sales for Keytex Energy.
This clinic was a good way to start, she said, because "the simple things like throwing a ball you can't take for granted with kids who have special needs."
A mutual friend put Ms. Cipko in touch with Raymond White, chief executive officer of the Watson Institute, which for nearly a century has provided programs for children with autism spectrum disorders, neurological impairments or serious emotional challenges. The clinic was a great idea, he thought.
"I have four children, all of whom played soccer," Mr. White said. "I think this is a great game for any kid, but especially for special needs kids because it's just them and the ball. It isn't too complicated."
Justin and Janet Okonski of Ross, whose son, Henry, 4, has cerebral palsy and vision impairment, agreed.
Henry plays soccer at a school for blind children he attends, his dad said.
"It's a great sport for him," Mr. Okonski said. "It helps him learn teamwork, sharing, patience. It works on a lot of different skills."
Heather Garry of Irwin was at the stadium with her daughter, Aralynn, 5, who has Down syndrome.
"We decided to try [the soccer clinic] out because she isn't involved in any sports yet," Ms. Garry said, adding that she's delighted she brought Aralynn to the clinic.
"Look at her," she said. "She's having a ball."
The clinic was wonderful, agreed Kelly Lesko of Cecil. Her son, Cody, 2, has verbal apraxia, a speech disorder in which a person has trouble saying what he or she wants to say correctly and consistently.
"He's around kids all day, but he can't speak," Ms. Lesko said. "It's nice for him to be around people who understand."
Parking was free and lunch was provided for the families who attended. Experts from the Watson Institute were on hand to offer counsel to parents on how to handle behavioral issues with special needs children.
Ms. Cipko said the clinic cost $32,000 and was worth every penny.
School districts are required by federal law to provide students with disabilities an opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics "equal to that of students without disabilities," the U.S. Department of Education reminded public school officials in guidelines published in January.
"Schools don't have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don't have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else."
Many area civic groups offer a variety of adaptive sports and fitness programs for children with special needs. Among them are the Boy Scouts (call 412-471-2927 for more information), the Girl Scouts (800-248-3355), the Hope Network (412-780-4605), Strong as Steel Adaptive Sports (412-281-4404), and the Special Olympics of Allegheny County (412-279-5450).
Special needs kids can play Challenger Baseball at the Ingomar Franklin Park Athletic Association (412-734-9174), the Challenger Division South Hills (412-831-1031) and the Miracle League of Southwestern Pennsylvania (724-831-7392).
Top Soccer (412-856-8011) is designed for special needs children. Pittsburgh Soccer in the Community (412-626-6856), which serves children in "at-risk" communities, is open to kids of all abilities.
Special needs kids can learn to row at Three Rivers Adaptive Rowing (412-231-TRRA), play golf at The First Tee of Pittsburgh (412-622-0108), go horseback riding at Horse 'N Soul Therapeutic Riding (724-288-6088) and Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania (724-443-4485).
The Verland Foundation (412-741-2375) and the Woodlands Foundation (724-935-5470) offer aquatics programs. Special needs kids can learn to canoe and water ski at an annual clinic sponsored by Three Rivers Adaptive Sports (412-848-8896), to ride a bike at iCan Shine, Inc. (412-420-2248), to fish at VarietyPittsburgh.org (412-747-2680).
Many organizations offer summer camps for children with a particular special needs, such as autism, juvenile-onset arthritis, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and spina bifida. A complete listing, and contact information can be found at the Allegheny County Family Resource Guide (www.familyresourceguide.org/family-support/recreation.aspx).
Jack Kelly: email@example.com or 412-263-1476.