While playing a game of soccer, Alex Leff, 13, makes sure as he runs up and down the field that he stays close beside Grant Talley 11, who has a form of autism. Leff helped Talley to understand the rules and encouraged him to be an enthusiastic and aggressive player. At one point, Grant even dribbled the ball down the field and scored a goal.
"I'm glad to work with a buddy and see him improve and get into it," said Leff, a Cheltenham native. "I'm happy to see him get better at passing and shooting, and see his enthusiasm."
Leff and 12 others from the Youth Mitzvah Corps served as buddies in the JCCs/Kehillah Sunday Soccer League as part of a service project for becoming a Bar Mitzvah. This season, they buddied-up with nine special-needs children, ages 9 to 14, during specific Sundays from September through November. Supported in part by the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network, the league — in its fourth year — is open to Jews and non-Jews alike.
At the first few sessions, Keith Ogden Sr. taught the children basic soccer skills, but since everyone responded so well, the group moved on to a full scrimmage. At the final meeting on Nov. 19, "Coach Keith" divided players into two teams, and even had the kids playing on a 100-yard field with regulation-size nets.
"I've seen them progress from where they didn't play as hard to now, [where] they just run and tire themselves out like it's a real game," said Ogden, whose own 14-year-old son, Kyle, has cerebral palsy.
Ogden doesn't keep score, and there's no pressure on the children to play competitively or even particularly well. The coach also makes it easy for players to score goals by not having a goalie and using wide nets.
Joe Jellen has seen his son, Jerry, 12, improve vastly since they joined the league four years ago. "He enjoys it enormously," said Jellen. "He has come out of his shell, and it's great for his socialization and interaction with other kids."
Starting in January, the players and coaches will reconvene for a basketball league that's still accepting new members; many children also participate in an area baseball league.
Ogden believes that teaching the fundamentals of a team sport is important for these kids, who may spend less time on a squad than other young people.
"They understand the concept of two teams, playing and scoring," said Ogden. "That's a good aspect, [since] normally these kids don't get put on a team."
During the game, the buddies didn't try to play hard and score, but rather kicked the ball over to their partners, allowing them to make the plays. Since most buddies also play organized sports, the transition from player to mentor proved to be a challenge.
"It's a process to understand that they're not going to be playing soccer themselves, but helping to focus the special-needs kids" on the game, explained Steven Agami, who leads the Youth Mitzvah Corps group. This was their second season volunteering with the soccer league.
Many of the parents were happy to see their kids getting some exercise, which many feel also served as physical therapy for them.
"Soccer gives them the coordination they need, as well as working some of the muscles they're primarily not used to working," said Ogden.
'Burn Off Some Energy'
Jellen felt that many special-needs children "tend to sit inside, and watch TV or play Nintendo games or those types of things.
"To get them out in a group like this is just wonderful," he continued. "They need to burn off some energy, and it is therapeutic."
After the game, the special-needs players were presented with trophies at an ice-cream party while Agami gathered his group of volunteers at the sideline bleachers to try to explain how their work relates to Judaism and Jewish values.
Along with helping children become more social and physical, the league gives parents a chance to meet others with special-needs children, and possibly form social networks. Jellen even has a Halloween party every year, where everyone from the league is welcome.
As this father acknowledged: "The whole league seems like it's grown up together."