Special-needs soccer at Little League field

City and Red Bulls to run games for kids with disabilities

Not every child has the opportunity to score a goal in a close game, or create a dynamic play, for a variety of different reasons. But having a disability won’t be a reason in Hoboken anymore.
The New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer announced a partnership with the city this month to bring a new, free soccer league to Hoboken for children with special needs. The league will hold games at the Hoboken Little League Field this May and will run for five weeks.
City Health and Human Services Director Leo Pellegrini said that since he began his position a little more than a year ago, he has received phone calls and letters from parents inquiring about a possible league for children who have disabilities.

“This free program gives every child, regardless of their ability, a chance to learn and play sports.” – Dawn Zimmer
“I have empathy for them because I think every child should have some kind of activity,” Pellegrini said last week. “As leaders, it’s up to us. We’re stuck with our field situation [in which some fields are closed for repair] so it was very difficult to add on additional programs.”
But through what Pellegrini describes as some juggling around, the city and the Red Bulls found a location.
David Jervis, the director of training programs for the Red Bulls, has attended a similar league run by the Red Bulls in Harrison. The league in Hoboken will be the second one started by the Red Bulls, and is open to all interested participants, not just Hoboken residents.
“It’s one of the most rewarding groups that you can take as a coach, especially when the kids are having fun, and using soccer to do it,” Jervis said. “It’s so fun coaching kids in general, but to see kids with different challenges enjoying the game is so rewarding.”
The city already had a partnership with the Red Bulls for a different soccer league in Hoboken. So the contacts were already in place.
“I reached out to the director of player development to see if they could bring [a special needs league] to Hoboken,” Pellegrini said.
The league is free to participants, and all costs are paid for by the Red Bulls. The city provides the field, and the Red Bulls provide the coaches. In addition to Red Bulls coaches, professional players from the team are expected to assist.
“The reason it’s operated by the Red Bulls is because you have to have special certifications to coach children with disabilities,” Pellegrini said.
The program, called TOPSoccer, is run by the United States Youth Soccer League. The Red Bulls partnered with the New Jersey Youth Soccer League to connect with kids with special needs throughout the area.
Jervis said the Red Bulls established an urban soccer initiative, which is aimed at providing opportunities for underprivileged children.

Spectrum of abilities

“We were looking to make sure we catered to every player,” Jervis said. “This was the final piece of the puzzle for us.”
Jervis said the league in Harrison was “hugely successful” in terms of connecting with different communities and organizations who didn’t know that such a program even existed.
“Kids were travelling from Hoboken to Harrison,” Jervis said. “We already had a partnership with the Hoboken All Stars [soccer team], so Leo Pellegrini suggested, ‘why don’t we bring the program to Hoboken?”
Jervis credits the formation of the league to having the support of people in the city like Pellegrini and Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
In Harrison, and in Hoboken, all children with special needs are welcome to join.
Jervis said children with autism and other learning disabilities are welcome, as well as children in wheelchairs.
“The league has players with a full spectrum of different needs,” Jervis said.
The ages of the players range from 5 to 18. The coaches group the players by disability to make instruction easier.
“How you coach a player in a wheelchair is different from other players, because a kid could have the ball in their lap,” Jervis said.
The Harrison league had approximately 20 players.

More leagues coming?

Pellegrini said he hopes that he’s not finished establishing leagues for children with special needs in Hoboken.
“The goal is to initiate something and see what the outcome is going to be,” Pellegrini said. “We want to have additional activities; not only soccer, but basketball or baseball. It’s been neglected in the past.”
Eric Stove, Managing Director of the New York Red Bulls, said in a release, “We’re looking forward to expanding our TOPSoccer program to the Hoboken area. Sports are an educational and inspirational part of our lives and we’re happy to be supporting Mayor Zimmer in her effort to improve the lives of Hoboken residents.”
Zimmer said it is “an honor to partner with the Red Bulls to bring opportunities for young athletes with disabilities to Hoboken.”
For more information about signing up, visit www.redbullsacademy.com.
“This free program gives every child, regardless of their ability, a chance to learn and play sports,” Zimmer said. “I thank Director Pellegrini for working to bring this program to Hoboken.”
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com

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