Seven-year-old Grayson Feith kicked the ball into the goal, and the crowd went wild. It could have been the first goal Grayson has ever made, but that’s not the reason the crowd was cheering. Grayson didn’t win the game with his kick either.
Grayson has autism and doesn’t get many opportunities to participate in soccer camps. The crowd was cheering because, this day, Grayson was able to participate in a soccer camp. And, during the camp, he had a chance to score a goal, and he nailed it.
“We have the children who are not invited to birthday parties or play dates,” Grayson’s mother, Kathryn, said. “They learn social skills in ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapy, but have no chance to practice them.”
In ABA therapy, a child learns skills (social skills, communication skills, and others) by breaking the skills into small tasks. The child’s ABA therapist rewards the child when he or she successfully completes a step.
Grayson was among 12 children from Project Hope in Greenwood and Bridging the Gap in Greenville who recently made their way to PC for a one-day soccer camp. They had a chance to practice social skills and learn the basics of the sport from members of PC’s men’s and women’s soccer teams.
The crowd who cheered him and the other children on that day included the children themselves, their parents, ABA therapists, and 12 members of PC’s soccer teams.
Not many of the children had ever kicked a soccer ball, let alone attend a camp at a Division I school. Kathryn’s son Grayson and PC history professor Dr. Stefan Wiecki’s son are both members of the same Cub Scout pack in Greenwood. After one of the meetings, Kathryn mentioned that Grayson wanted to try soccer, but most soccer clubs seemed to be too competitive and team-oriented.
“A,t some point, when talking with Stefan, I realized that PC had student-athletes and a service-oriented culture,” Kathryn said, “so I mentioned the idea of a soccer camp for children with autism to him.”
Wiecki was on board from the start. He passed the idea along to Samantha Fink, who is one of his advisees and No. 21 on the women’s soccer team.
“Sam was right away very supportive of the idea,” Wiecki said.
After talking with her teammates and players on the men’s soccer team, Fink found more than enough volunteers to make the camp a reality. Kathryn got in touch with teachers and parents of children at Project Hope and Bridging the Gap. According to Kathryn, both groups were excited about the camp.
“I have met many other families as we have dealt with trying to obtain services and find resources. Most would love their children to be involved in activities, but have trouble finding activities that are willing to accommodate the needs of their children,” Kathryn said.
“Most no longer attend church because our children can’t be quiet during the service or can’t handle the music or the teachers don’t want to deal with them.”
But PC’s soccer field provided the space the children needed for a less-structured time, according to Niki Porter, a case supervisor with Project Hope.
“The soccer camp was their therapy for the day,” she said.
The children were free to play on the field and in the bleachers, and the teachers and parents were free from worrying about what might go wrong.
“Some of our families would never take their kid out to a soccer camp because they don’t know what it would be like,” Porter said. “This camp was a really cool way for them to practice doing things in a group and for their parents to see that having a soccer camp with a shadow wouldn’t be so bad.”
Each child’s ABA therapist was there to help throughout the day. According to Porter, the children benefited most from listening to the players on the soccer teams.
“For them to hear instruction from players is nice because they spend all day with us,” Porter said. “It’s nice for the children to learn from other adults who are teaching them.”
This social interaction helps the children understand that they can listen to others when they’re away from the typical ABA setting. Kathryn attended an autism conference recently and heard young adults on the spectrum say over and over how they wished they had more opportunities for social interactions.
“They all said they figured out the academics, but still didn’t know how to interact with people,” Kathryn said. “I am very grateful and excited that PC has been not only willing to try but was excited and enthusiastic to welcome the children to campus.”
The children practiced with others, and they learned soccer skills too. PC soccer players taught the children soccer drills that they practice themselves. Fink led the children in the passing drill, one in which soccer players kicked balls back and forth with the soccer newcomers. The children loved lining up at midfield to practice.
The PC soccer players taught the children how to control the ball in the dribbling drill. Some children dribbled the ball from one end of Edens Field all 120 yards to the other end.
In everyone’s favorite, the children lined up and practiced kicking the ball into the goal. Each time a goal was scored, the children’s proud parents and ABA therapists cheered so loudly you would have thought they won a championship that day.
“It was a joy to give these kids an opportunity to play a sport that’s so close to my heart,” Fink said.