By Ali Foley Shenk
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or girl, as long as the baby is healthy.” While expecting our second child, we repeated this often-heard sentiment – and meant it. Then our son Dean was born and was found to have a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome. He wasn’t healthy.
When you have a child with special needs, you find yourself reassessing your goals for them. We wanted Dean to be happy, as we do all of our children, but we knew his sense of belonging in this world would be more important than ever. As he grows, we’ve found that sometimes this means we have to help integrate Dean into more mainstream activities, and sometimes this means finding an environment where he is “safe” being with other kids with special needs.
We found out about RVAccess (then TOPSoccer) when Dean was 3. I filled out the form to register him for the program and was presented with the question: “What are your goals for your child while in this program?”
Well, I thought, it would be great if he learned to dribble a soccer ball, score goals, improve his endurance – but really, I want to see his confidence grow and see him develop meaningful connections with others in this environment. Remember, he might not be healthy, but he certainly could be happy. He could belong – hopefully.
We arrived at the first session and quickly realized that everyone involved in RVAccess is happy to be a part of the experience. Coaches Leon Brownlee and Carter Blair exude pure joy to see the kids show up and achieve whatever their specific goals are. It’s a magical place. Athletes (yes, they are referred to as athletes, because they are) do not need to have any particular skills or abilities, and the program is provided at no cost to families through the generosity of private donors and financial grants. For families who are used to large out-of-pocket costs, endless applications, and looming approvals, RVAccess lives up to its name in more ways than one.
The athletes with special needs are paired up with buddies from the Richmond Kickers Youth Soccer program (athletes can also participate in scrimmages with buddies mixed in for a group of kids). When possible, each athlete stays with the same buddy from week to week, as that consistency and depth of relationship are especially important for these kids. I expected it would be a positive experience for Dean to have an older kid as a partner to play with, but I frankly didn’t expect much more than that. Instead, one of the biggest blessings of our life is that Dean was paired up with Ben Hazelton, who was then 11. Ben and Dean have a bond that is like no other, with complete admiration and acceptance of each other. They look forward to seeing each other at each session and have their own jokes, games, and routines with each other. Regardless of what’s gone on that week, Dean comes to RVAccess and is all in. The world moves at such a fast pace, and RVAccess moves at Dean’s pace. For Dean and for us, RVAccess is home. I cannot emphasize enough what a joy and respite it is to have a place where your child with special needs is thriving and you can relax in that. You can see it in the other parents’ faces. They know their child has a home there, too.
We lament the end of each RVAccess session and await the email for the next; we sign up without a second thought. Those original goals for Dean’s happiness and having a place to belong have been met and continue to be met in this program. We give thanks to all who make this program possible.
Visit richmondkickers.com/RVAccess to learn more.
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