The diagnosis would come soon after Roxy Penny's son started a traditional indoor soccer class for preschoolers more than a year ago. But Penny and her husband Shelley knew pretty quickly that the fit wasn't right for their little boy, who showed all the classic signs of somebody on the autism spectrum.
The class was packed with young kids and offered too much stimulation. There was even an arcade near the entrance. Jude, then nearly two, seemed to melt down each time.
When the diagnosis came, Penny and her husband, who also have a young daughter, knew they needed to find something different for their son, who loved the game and showed ability. After all, his dad has played and coached soccer at all levels for 30 years.
"It was the environment that was the problem," she said. "We got more educated and we learned more about him."
They searched for soccer alternatives in the area for young children with autism and couldn't find anything. So the couple, along with their son's occupational therapist, Katie Sayre, built it. Oak City Soccer opened earlier this year, designed for kids ages 2 to 10. (Not to be confused with Oak City Futbol Club, the semi-professional women's team I wrote about last week!).
At first, Penny worried nobody would come, but there was no need for fears. Oak City Soccer is thriving. Spaces for the soccer skills classes are quickly filling up. Right now, the program is booked until October when some spots are available. They'd love to add more classes, expand the age range and even, eventually, launch their own league.
"I don't think I've ever had a job I'm 100 percent excited about" until now, "Penny said. "We have our breaks and my husband gets upset because he can't play with the kids."
Penny, Shelley and Sayre lead each of the classes. Shelley focuses on teaching soccer skills. Sayre provides her professional expertise working with kids on the spectrum. And Penny serves as kind of the class mom. Together, along with volunteers, they lead 45-minute classes of five to six kids as they run through various drills and learn skills.
The program takes place at SportHQ in Cary, an indoor facility where they have their own room to conduct the programs. The walls are padded. The floor is bouncy. And there are even attached bathrooms.
Some kids just need one session before they are ready to play on a traditional team. Others, Penny said, will continue to learn skills through the classes.
But Penny and her co-founders also have learned that Oak City isn't really just about soccer. They've seen students build confidence and social skills over the course of the six weeks - tentative at the first class and walking in with swagger by the end. Several kids have returned for multiple programs. And parents are building their own connections during the program - setting up playdates and supporting each other while their kids are in class.
"We started this for our son - so our son would have a place," Penny said. "And now it's so much more."
While the program is designed for children with autism, the program does accept children with other issues such as ADHD or social anxiety. Email the program at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out if it would be the right fit for your child.
The program, which aims to have a 1:1 ratio of students and instructors, is always in need of volunteers, who must be at least 10 years old. Several high school and college students already are volunteering with the program.
Oak City Soccer's website has more information about the program, how to sign up and how to help.
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