Sometimes life is tough to live. Sometimes it just stinks, and you walk around with a broken heart, not knowing what the heck is going to be thrown at you next. Sometimes, though, it throws a bouquet of roses instead of flying monkey poo. And sometimes, though it may not be a whole bouquet, you get a nice little nosegay of fresh flowers, warm sun, and a little more faith in humanity.
So it was for me and my daughter last Friday. She was invited to a soccer clinic specifically for children affected by autism. Although we didn't meet THE Wizard(as in the one that would get us back to Kansas and Auntie Em) we DID meet some Wizards. As in the Kansas City Wizards.
I was skeptical at first. I didn't know how on earth these soccer pros would work with one child with autism, let alone 50. Not to mention, mine isn't exactly the best at following directions or standing in line. But, I figured it was only an hour and a half, and if she couldn't handle it, we'd leave. So, I rushed home after work, snatched my daughter from daycare, changed her clothes, dragged a brush through her hair, and set out on the 45 minute drive to the Wizards practice facility at Swope Park.
I will admit it. I was nervous. Both for my daughter and myself. I was so worried that she would hate it, or have problems. I didn't know anyone. Or I thought I didn't, until I checked in.
"I have to give you one of these!" I heard, right after I signed my kiddo in, and was then treated to a big hug by a lady wearing shades and a "Walk Now for Autism 2008" t-shirt. She then introduced herself as Jennifer, and it dawned on me... she was the face behind all the e-mails and phone calls that had been made regarding both my daughter's birthday party AND all of the Autism Speaks contacts I had made!!! Whew...so not so much nervousness on my part anymore. I had a face. A person. Someone I could recognize in the crowd. And then I started looking around. Ari wasn't terrible nervous, but she was a little shy. I noticed her looking at a little boy not far away with some interest. "Would you like to say hi?" I asked. She nodded her head, and we walked over to the boy and his parents. She put on her brightest smile and promptly rattled off a greeting that included "Hi" her full name, her age, and "I'm a tiger...Rawwrrrr!" I couldn't help it...I giggled. The other parents, rather than thinking her strange, or asking "What did she say?" just smiled, and introduced their own child, who was non-verbal. Now that she was relaxed, she was ready to get started.
Soon enough, we were all asked to go onto the field and sit in the bleachers, while a rather tall, tanned guy took the field in front of us. Jimmy Conrad explained how the clinic would work. We'd be divided into three groups, and we would rotate to each of three stations. One would be dribbling, one would work on passing, and the third would be goal scoring. We then were divided up and directed toward stations. Our first one was dribbling. As soon as it was made clear what direction we were headed in, Ari took off...and ran right to Mr. Conrad. I walked a good distance away, trying to catch up, when I saw the perfect Kodak moment. And silly me, I forgot to bring a camera. As she caught up with him, my daughter looked up...way up...at Jimmy Conrad, and high-fived him.
Dribbling is tough. It requires a lot of focus and some great foot-eye coordination. Ari wanted to kick goals. It took several tries, but she finally did some of the tiny kicks that dribbling requires. But about 10 minutes into this, she was done. She plopped on the ground, demanded water, and sniffed in disdain with the biggest frown ever. This lasted about 20 minutes...until she spied one of the peer models coaxing a kid into dribbling by having them pretend they were a dinosaur. What fun! She stood up, kicked her ball over, and made sure to tell everyone she was a Tiger..Rawrrrr! Mr. Conrad, after having tried to coax her into dribbling a few times, came over and cheered her on. Wow. Then it was time for passing drills.
As we walked across the field, I had my doubts about this one. The kids were going to be paired up with other kids. Ari was teamed up with a much older girl, with long beautiful hair and glasses. I had briefly talked to this girl's mom during the dribbling portion. Kerry Zavignan instructed the kids how to pass the ball back and forth, and walked around, helping each group. Our girls did SO great! The older girl kicked the ball hard, and my daughter kicked it back, giggling and smiling. They did this for a good half hour, never tiring. As we went over to the goal scoring portion, the girls clasped hands, with my daughter declaring that this girl was her friend. I couldn't agree more. What I didn't know until the other mom told me, is that the older girl was just beginning to be social with other kids. Another Wow moment.
They continued to hold hands all the way through the line for kicking. Ari LOVED the idea of scoring goals, at first. But, as with anything, she got tired quickly. It had been a long day. She stood in front of the goal, and declared that she wanted to go home. NOW. Instead of scornful looks, or whispered comments about my inability to control my child, what did I see and hear? Other kids and parents, shouting, "Come on Ari, you can do it!!!!" and clapping for her. She kicked it, and Ryan McMahen and Davy Arnaud cheered her on as much as the other people did, although one of them was goalkeeping...and let it pass by...;) Her next turn up though, no amount of cheering or clapping was going to move the mountain that is Arianna. She was DONE. Fini. But you know what? It didn't matter that my child was screaming that she wanted to go home. A boy only a few feet away from us was doing the exact same thing. And nobody thought that they were badly behaved children throwing a temper tantrum. They were just our kids, and this was just normal.
Later, during the autograph session, it amazed me that these players would give so much of their own time and energy to children like my daughter. Especially in the age of sports stars that act like spoiled brats. These guys gave of themselves so that these kids would benefit, and get to experience soccer in a way that they could handle and enjoy. This was a wonderful thing. And there is something truly magical about seeing a grown woman run with her child, yelling "Scooooooore!!!!!!" as he runs around like a soccer star after shooting a goal, or seeing an athlete smile as he kicks a ball back and forth with a child, or that same athlete remembering that your child was the one pretending to be a tiger as he signs a team photo, or watching parents have the same goofy smile on their face as you have while they watch their child socialize and do something they've never done before. And not because they haven't wanted to, but because there wasn't really a way for them to do it in a group where they weren't the odd one out.
The autographed photo now hangs in my daughter's room, and she asks if she can go play soccer every day. Me? I am still overwhelmed with the warmth and kindness shown not only by the players, but other parents. I would like to say "Thank You" to the mom of the girl that my daughter was paired with for passing. She still talks about her new friend. I would also like to say thanks to the sister that reassured me it was okay when my daughter was melting down. Jennifer, thank you sister! It was so nice to see the face behind the voice and e-mails!!! And last, but certainly not least, to the Wizards players. Jimmy Conrad, Kerry Zavignan, Ryan McMahen, and Davy Arnaud, THANK YOU so much.
Autism Awareness night at the Wizards is August 9th at Community America ballpark.