The ballfield is buzzing with activity this morning. White lines have been painted in the dry fall grass. Two makeshift soccer fields. Orange cones set up for practice drills. Youth sized nets at either end. Coolers of red and orange Gatorade for quenching thirsty players. And snack bags full of non-health related foods that will chemically alter cholesterol levels and generate hyperactive smiles.
This is the Adaptive Sports and Activities Program, otherwise known as ASAP.
The players today are kids who perhaps have never played any kind of organized sport. They may be 8 or 9 years old. They may be 22. But because of their special needs, they are still kids at heart.
They are here because in the normal course of life they are not invited to play sports at school. Their coordination is not that of a typical teenager. The rules of the game can be confusing to their way of thinking. Words like autism and down-syndrome and mentally challenged define their world. Sadly, they are not invited to much of anything.
The community has turned out in droves for this program. We thought if we could reach a handful of kids, maybe we could be of some help to a few families. Give the kids a chance to have fun. Give the parents a chance to breath. Parents whose love is wide and whose kind of tired runs deep. Caring for these kids is a full-time commitment. For many, there will be no empty nest.
Last month we had over a hundred people here including a handful of volunteers, parents, and a boat load of kids.
I am out in the parking lot attempting to direct traffic. We just didn’t expect parking to be an issue. But our expectations paled in the shadow of a Higher expectation.
A van pulls up and rolls down the window.
“Hey Josh. It’s good to see you back.”
“Hey.” Big smile.
“You ready to play some soccer?”
A big “Yes.” An even bigger smile.
If there is such a thing as a smile overload that is exactly what is going on here. Most of the parents are telling stories like, “My kid has talked about nothing else since we started coming. I’ve never seen her so excited about anything.”
One mother asks the director of the program if she can buy an extra T-shirt for her son.
“I can barely get him to take his shirt off. He wants to wear it every day. He shows everybody the ASAP logo and tells them all about it. I’m afraid I’m going to wear it out running it through the washer and dryer three and four times a week.”
The director is quick with her response. “I’m afraid you can’t buy one, but we can give you a couple more. We’re just glad he likes his shirt.”
The spirit of giving is what defines this event. There is no registration fee. The Ts are free. The games and activities are free. The hugs are free. The mini-rainbow striped muffins are free. And btw, excellent. The Harris County High girls’ and boys’ soccer teams came here today to run the drills and games for free. The Coach came with them for free. The volunteers work for free. Even the perfect blue sky and cool air is free.
I’m not saying this doesn’t cost money. But people are asking what can we give? What can we do? You don’t have to be around these kids and parents very long until you just want to give something to help make it all happen.
You should see some of these high school kids working with these special kids. They guide them through the drills.
“Come on Cole. You can do this. Kick the ball around the orange cone. Great job! Now, kick it around the yellow cone. Way to go, Cole.”
Sometimes they lead these kids by the hand. Sometimes they can barely keep up with the ones that seem to run full steam ahead in no particular direction. It’s more like chase than soccer. But no one is complaining. No one is making snide remarks. Everyone has a name and a buddy on this day, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Meet Samantha. She’s nine. Long brown hair. A little bit shy but she warms up fast and then talks your ears off.
She’s about 4 foot nothing. She introduces me to her two brothers, one of whom could pass for a middle school linebacker.
“We’re triplets,” she says. “Ryan is the oldest but he’s only two minutes older than me. We’re all practically the same age.”
Did I say something about big smiles. Trust me, it’s contagious.
My assignment is to be Samantha’s buddy today, but we barely get started when the lady in charge of buddy assignments comes up to me and asks me to hand Samantha off to one of the high school girls.
“We’re short on buddies today with the older group. Can you be Josh’s buddy?”
“Are you kidding. We’re like old pals.”
Josh gives me a fist bump.
“Looks like you’ve got me today, buddy.”
He looks me over. “Okay.”
Josh is almost twenty. He’s got more beard stubble than I do. He’s had multiple heart surgeries. He’s had pieces of both feet taken apart and put back together at least twice. He’s been through way more struggles in twenty years than I have in sixty-six.
“He’s our miracle child,” his mother tells me. “He should have died three times by now, but he’s tough and God just keeps giving him back to us.”
I have no words.
The soccer activities are in full swing. Josh has some pretty good kicking action going on. Either foot. It doesn’t matter. He runs like any kid, but with just a bit of a hop in his gait. I’m doing my best to keep up with him, but he’s got 45 years on me. By the end of the first hour, we’re both ready for a drink.
“You thirsty?” I’m asking because I am.
“Which color Gatorade do you want? Red or orange?”
I hand him the cup and he says, “Thank you.”
I don’t know why I was caught off guard by his response, but I had to look away and gather myself for a moment. All morning he and I have been having one-word conversations and sometimes no-word conversations. I guess I just didn’t expect it.
Suddenly I felt ashamed. Somehow his simple thank you made me wonder how he gets by in a world where most people don’t expect much out of kid like him. How many times have people looked away when they cross paths? How many people never speak to him because they don’t expect to get anything back?
He and my old legs ran around that field for the next hour until the final bell. Every time Josh put the ball in the net, he went into his happy dance. Feet apart. Knees bent. Hands clasped together with his arms out front. He looked like he was stirring a huge pot of stew.
And you guessed it. He was one big smile.