St. Louis Helps the Disabled Through Soccer

SPENSA allows disabled children a chance to overcome their struggles on the soccer pitch
by Dave Lange   |   Monday, January 27, 2014

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Chris Bianchi is a 29-year-old St. Louisan. He has a chromosomal disorder that has left him a 10-year-old physically and a 6- or 7-year-old mentally. But on Saturday mornings, Chris overcomes those limitations and becomes a soccer player, thanks to the Special Needs Soccer Association, or SPENSA.

“Spen-sah,” as everyone calls it in St. Louis soccer circles, runs free 1-hour sessions for 7 consecutive Saturday mornings each fall and spring for disabled kids who have registered through the Missouri Youth Soccer Association to participate. They gather at the St. Louis Soccer Park, and college, high school and club coaches and players volunteer their time to go one-on-one with each kid to play whatever kind of soccer activity the kid can do. It might be playing in a game, passing the ball, dribbling it, kicking it or just running around.

But the bottom line: Use soccer as a means for disabled kids to have fun.

There is little doubt that they are having fun. Kids in wheelchairs, kids on crutches, kids with autism, kids with Down syndrome — any kid with a disability and a physician’s approval — is welcome at SPENSA.

Bianchi is a good example. He’s been spending Saturday mornings with SPENSA for the last 10 years. “He’s like a different person when he’s there,” says his mom, Sue Bianchi. “Normally, he avoids eye contact. But at the soccer field, he’s right in there listening to what the coaches want him to do. He just loves it.”

Bianchi and others like him have been loving SPENSA for a very long time. It is part of US Youth Soccer’s TOPSoccer program for disabled children, but predates TOPSoccer by a number of years. No one is quite sure when SPENSA began, but it’s been around since well before the founding of TOPSoccer in 1991. Tim Champion, the former women’s head soccer coach at St. Louis University, helped start a program for wheelchair-bound kids about 35 years ago that evolved into SPENSA’s current format.

 “Our purposes are to have them enjoy life, enjoy sports and try to teach them a little bit about soccer,” says Champion, who is still a regular at every SPENSA session. “It’s a good time for them to hang out with other kids. They enjoy the game just as much as my college players used to.”

SPENSA kids are divided into groups of beginning, intermediate and advanced players. Safety as well as skill determines whether or not a kid graduates into a higher group. Each session starts with warm-ups, moves into skills drills, and ends with a game. But that structure has to be flexible.

“Our kids are challenged to the point that you have to structure what you do based on what you have that day,” says Kevin Byrne, who administers the program along SPENSA president Janet Oberle and Shirley McBroom. “A kid could be highly functional one week, and the next week he could be just the opposite. Our coaches do what they do on the fly. They don’t come with a plan because it just doesn’t work. We try to focus on keeping a ball on each player’s foot. Sometimes you have to sing songs to them to get the ball on their foot. You just do what you have to do to keep the kids going.”

But there are 3 things that Byrne can count on each Saturday: anywhere from 75 to 125 disabled kids, at least that many volunteers, and a core group of the same coaches who come every week.

“I can’t say enough about the people who run SPENSA and about the volunteers,” Sue Bianchi says. “They are just unbelievable. They make the whole program.”

Club, high school and college coaches often bring their entire teams to volunteer. There are enough so that they can accommodate a kid such as the one who was on crutches for the entire session. “We put three coaches with him because he could hardly walk, and all he did was stand on crutches and shoot for an hour at the goal,” says Denny Vaninger, a volunteer coach at many SPENSA sessions. “Playing soccer to him was taking shots, and he would get there 15 minutes early so he could get over to the goal. His parents are like, ‘Man, he looks so forward to this.’”

The kids aren’t the only ones looking forward to their Saturday mornings at SPENSA. Vaninger, a former U.S. National Team player, and Champion, a longtime college coach, get almost as much out of the sessions as the kids they help. Champion, for example, had a wheelchair-bound SPENSA player who, years later, asked him to attend her college graduation and roll her up to the stage to get her diploma.

 “For the volunteers, the players, the parents, anybody that is involved with that program, you just leave feeling like a better person,” Vaninger says.

A case in point happened in October 2012, when U.S. Women’s National Team star forward Abby Wambach visited for a fundraiser that benefited SPENSA. “I feel a little selfish in that I got more out of that than they did,” she said after playing with some of SPENSA’s kids. “Those are the moments that make it easier to travel as much as I do, that make it easier to have to work out all the time, and sacrifice missing so much of my family’s life. Those are the moments that actually matter. It was cool ... very, very cool.”

That event, sponsored by the Missouri Youth Soccer Association, raised $14,000 for SPENSA. It’s just one of many donations that keep the program running and keep it free for the kids who participate. Every soccer club in St. Louis helps SPENSA through donations and/or volunteers. The Kolping Kicks, WC St. Louis, Missouri Rush and St. Louis Scott Gallagher soccer clubs are SPENSA’s primary sponsors. St. Louis Scott Gallagher, which owns the Soccer Park, donates field time, banquet space and a storage unit.

“We help SPENSA because the mission of our club is to positively impact the development of our players and positively impact the community,” says Steve Pecher, a former NASL and U.S. National Team player who is a director at St. Louis Scott Gallagher and a SPENSA volunteer. “The joy you see with these players is unmatched. If it’s a goal scored, passing to another teammate, or just being on the field with others, it’s an enjoyment for all involved.”

Especially for SPENSA players such as Chris. “It’s given him a lot of self-esteem,” his mom says. “He’s gone to a couple of the soccer banquets and when they introduce the SPENSA players, he’s standing up a like a peacock because he’s so proud.”

His participation in SPENSA has developed into a ritual in the Bianchi household. “Every Saturday morning when SPENSA has a session, he’s up at the crack of dawn,” Bianchi says. “I’ve learned from experience not to put his soccer uniform on him when he wakes up, because he’ll be out the front door and he’ll wear himself out pacing around the car for two hours before we’re even ready to leave. That’s how much he looks forward to going.”


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Dave writes about soccer in St. Louis, something he's been doing since the early 1970s. His book, "Soccer Made in St. Louis," was published in 2011 and has almost sold out. He was a head coach for 11 years at Busch Soccer Club.