Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Kicking Down Walls

I could tell he was uncertain, maybe nervous, choosing his words carefully and probably hoping not to offend me. He presented a list of reasons that his proposition would be beneficial to all involved, himself included.

"Do you think Caden would be interested in being the assistant team manager of our girls soccer team?" Coach J asked. I could hardly reply. Was this really happening?

Caden started playing soccer with a community organization called Soccer Shots when he was 5. Before signing him up, I remember anxiously emailing the founder, Coach J, to see if he thought Caden might be able to participate successfully. I wanted it to be a positive experience for everyone and I wanted him to be safe. Caden didn't walk until he was 3 so even at the age of 5, he was still mastering running and kicking. I wasn't sure if this was a highly competitive group or if the coach had experience with any children with special needs. His reply was enthusiastically supportive: yes, he would love for Caden to join Soccer Shots. Whewwwwww. The heaviness of bated breath while waiting to see how your child might be received in new environments is agonizing so the exhale upon reassurance is profound.

Caden loved Soccer Shots and participated for a couple of years until he aged out. It was primarily for preschoolers through kindergartners but Coach J was kind enough to let my boy continue to play an extra year. Eventually we moved on to TOPSoccer, designed specifically for children with disabilities. Caden continues to play with this group and very much enjoys it. Occasionally we'd run into Coach J at random events and he was always very interested to catch  up with Caden's progress and proud to know he was still playing soccer.

And then out of the blue, I recently received a phone call from Coach J saying he still thought about Caden and sharing how much he learned from him. He was currently coaching his daughter's travel soccer team, the Hershey Force, and was interested in finding a way for Caden to be involved.  He wanted to make it an inclusive experience and he felt it would be a great opportunity for Caden to grow, as well as the players. He was open and upfront, asking about proper terminology when speaking about Caden and how to handle any questions the girls might have. He had thought out some possible duties and wanted feedback on them. He even had a title ready: assistant team manager.

I hope I spoke coherently. It was such an unexpected moment of elation. Caden is involved in many inclusive activities but in nearly all of them from school to TOPSoccer, he has an aide or a buddy at the ready. He is the one always needing help. But this was a chance for him to assist others and to have responsibilities to make him proud.

And as his mother, the best part to me was that it was an opportunity I did not initiate. I wasn't the one making the call asking for out of the box thinking for ways to include my boy. I wasn't the one making the list of possible tasks or offering ways to make it successful. It was all someone else's doing. The tables had been turned. I loved it and I barely knew how to properly respond. I wanted to dance. I wanted to cry. I wanted to thank Coach J. I especially wanted him to know how incredibly meaningful this was to us. It makes my heart explode to know that someone not in our immediate circle thought to himself, "Hmm, I wonder what opportunities are available for Caden? I'm gonna call and ask and I'm going to create something for him". This is inclusion. This is community.

Is Caden interested in being assistant team manager. Pick-an-expletive yeah! He wouldn't miss it!

The first home game for Caden was this weekend. He beamed - no - he BEAMED standing next to Coach J during the pre-game preparations, handing out player cards, organizing water bottles and helping with warm-ups. During the game, he sat next to the bench with a clipboard so he could keep track of which players scored goals. Afterwards he helped clean up, high fived the other team, and then joined his team as they ran across the field to thank the parents. When he spotted me and The Tank, his grin took up so much of his face that his eyes disappeared. Other parents clapped for Caden instead of their daughters. "Good game, Caden!" "Great job, Caden!" I'm sure there's no crying in soccer but the appreciation cannot be contained when you have this kind of community helping to kick down walls for your child. They are indeed the Hershey Force.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Squeal Together



"Why is he acting that way?" asked the 8 year old boy sitting in front of me on the swings. He was speaking of Caden, seated behind me. We had just finished one turn on the ride and since there was no line, the ride operator had offered us all another go. This young boy could hear Caden squealing with joy while Frank and I couldn't stop laughing at his glee during that first ride. The boy had actually moved seats to be closer to us after that, explaining, "Whenever I see such happy faces, I can't resist!" But now he was getting a better look at Caden and was curious. I looked over my shoulder at my son and saw nothing but excitement.

"Because he's happy," I answered, thinking it should be pretty obvious. The little boy watched and pondered Caden some more as he babbled away in his unclear speech and made nonsensical sounds of delight.

"Does he have braces?" he guessed.

"No braces - yet," I replied ."But he did have ten teeth pulled earlier this year. Are you seeing the gaps in his smile?"

"No. I thought maybe that's why he couldn't talk. Because he has braces."

I typically explain to children that Caden has low muscle tone so speech is difficult for him but he can use sign language and his iPad to communicate. This is usually pretty interesting to other kids, even giving my boy a cool factor. But I was so humored by this boy's idea that people who get braces can't talk that I couldn't go into teachable moment mode. No matter. The new friend had moved on and was asking us if we were going to ride again, even though we were still waiting for our current turn to begin. Once we got going, he echoed Caden's squeals and commented on how much more fun the ride was while doing that. He spent the majority of the ride nearly turned backwards to watch Caden and share in our happiness.

To me, this is life with a disability in a nutshell. Other people notice differences. It's only human. Sometimes they stare, sometimes they ask questions and sometimes they do both. Part of sharing Caden with the world means embracing this natural reaction to help others understand. But then we move on. We focus on what we share in common and how we are alike. We learn from the differences but we revel in our similarities. Then it's easy to be in a happy place and squeal together.