BY ELDON GRAHAM
Parents of special-needs children know how difficult it is to raise a child with mental and physical disabilities. So when they get to chance to let their hair down and participate in a fun family event, that is something a parent can easily get behind. Thanks to Special Olympics Pennsylvania having recently become operational in South Philadelphia, it is possible for neighborhood children and adults to practice and play sports in a safe, accommodating environment.
Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and join in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.
Kristin Craven, special events & marketing manager for SOPA, said, “Athletes, to compete, must train at least eight weeks. So this is part of them so they can go to the Spring Games in April and eventually the Summer Games at Penn State in June.” According to Craven, SOPA has been in Philadelphia for over 30 years and has about 2,000 volunteers and 30 coaches in the program.
According to Craven, “Special Olympics PA-Philadelphia has several sports training programs set up around the city utilizing recreation centers and schools – and plenty of volunteers to provide these trainings on a weekly basis.
“In early 2016 we recognized that South Philly neighborhoods had a population of children and adults with ID but totally underserved as far as programs for them to participate in went. So we decided to start a sports training program at the East Passyunk Community Recreation Center on Saturday mornings.”
On Saturdays, basketball practice runs 11:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m. at the recreation center, located at 11th and Mifflin streets. On Sundays, bowling is scheduled for 11:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m. at PEP Bowl Lanes at Broad and Federal streets.
“We have several volunteers from the South Philly community volunteering every week to help coach the athletes. Several of our athletes and coaches belong to the South Philly Vikings Mummers Club,” Craven said.
The South Philly program also offers opportunities to enjoy volleyball and soccer. As it progresses in South Philadelphia, SOPA will look to integrate more sports into their program out of the extant 11 at the national and state levels.
There are no special regulations that the coaches or players must adhere to. “Special Olympics tries to align with the national federation of each sport with minor alterations if needed, but typically they tend to stay in line,” Craven said. Minor alterations would be, for example, court size, or how many players for each team are on a court, such as 3-on-3 or 5-on-5.
Some of the schools of the children who are enrolled also participate in with SOPA. “We do an interscholastic unified sports program where we take students with and without intellectual disabilities in the school, and they train and compete together,” explained Craven. “In Philadelphia, we offer both bocce and soccer.”
Bocce is an Italian game. The basic principle of the sport is to roll a bocce ball closest to the target ball, which is called a pallino. As a Special Olympics sport, bocce provides people with special needs the opportunity to have social contacts, develop physically and to gain self-confidence.
Alfonso Pedulla, a coach of basketball and soccer for the South Philadelphia chapter, was instrumental in getting SOPA in South Philadelphia. “I’ve been trying to get Special Olympics down here for God knows how long,” he said. Originally located in the Northeast, he worked to with SOPA’s Sports Dir. Michelle Cordell to get this local chapter going. “We started out with like 12 kids; we’re up to about 20-25 kids now,” Pedulla said. We only started last year, so we’ve grown.”
When the program began in South Philadelphia last year, it was with six athletes in basketball. They had 13 by the end of last season. In August, they started soccer and volleyball. This year, they have about 28 athletes participating in basketball. This is the first year they are doing bowling.
Asked how he got involved, Pedulla simply replied, “my daughter. She’s been doing Special Olympics for God knows how long, since she was about five years old.” His daughter is named Bianca Pedulla, a 27-year-old on the autism spectrum. Bianca’s mother, Josephine “Penny” Pedulla, is also a part of the South Philadelphia program as a psychology manager.
In the beginning, Pedulla described his daughter’s adjustment to the program as “slow,” but it is beneficial for her. “It doesn’t matter how well she does, pretty much. I think it’s more the social aspect of it that they need,” he said. Of the children and players he said, “They are pretty much friendly. Some of them go to school together, some don’t, so there’s a big social aspect.”
Pedulla continued, “Once they get together, they see each other, they interact with each other. It gives them self-confidence.”
After they appeared in their first competition last year, the coach raved about his players’ performance in the game and blew past his expectations. “It was great!” he said delightedly. “They actually excelled and won gold. It was our first time and we were trying them out to see how they were doing. They were actually a little bit better than teams they were paired with.”
In the summertime, athletes play warmer-weather sports such as soccer and volleyball, while the winter months are relegated to basketball and bowling.
Pedulla is not the only parent who believes in what SOPA has to offer. Denine Aversa, a mother with two sons in the program, said, “This is what the city needs, especially in South Philly.” Aversa lives in New Jersey but is thankful that her children get to participate with individuals they can relate to in the city. Her two sons are Michael “Mikey” Caporale, a player with autism, and Gino Caporale, Jr., a coach diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, in which a person is generally considered to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
The families and athletes are a resource for each other, Aversa noted. Some of the participants have never picked up a basketball and find reassurance in adjusting to relatable individuals like themselves. She spoke fondly about how much of a community these children and their families form: “All their siblings come out to support them. They meet for movies and socialize outside of the program. They call themselves ‘the Wildcats.’”
“It’s a family affair,” Craven concurred wholeheartedly.
“The community rallies around them,” said Shari Adler, a behavioral specialist who brings her clients to the games. She commented, “There’s not a lot these kids have to look forward to and participate in; this is like the best thing ever.” The sport and related activities form an outlet for the participants.
Mark Moss, of South Philly Vikings fame, and another coach at SOPA, is currently battling kidney cancer and had one of his kidneys removed. However, he still comes out to coach the athletes because he believes in them. In all that he’s going through, Moss says, “After spending time with these kids experiencing what they experience, I will never complain about a day in my life ever again.”
Moss, who is also a filmmaker, spoke about how his experiences with the children. One in particular, Michael Caporale, who has autism, had a hard time reaching others or being reached but found a voice through a video camera. Moss says Caporale was usually shy, like “a turtle in his shell,” but when a camera is put into his hands, “he comes out of his shell.”
Caporale was the recipient of the “Jimmy Medal,” an award that identifies and celebrates individuals who make a positive difference in the lives of others.
Moss believes his experience with the athletes has not only been a learning curve them but for him as well. Understanding where they come from and what they go through has taught him to anticipate their needs to the point where even if a child is nonverbal, Moss can grasp what they are trying to communicate in an instant.
The SOPA South Philly program will play its first game of the year in the Montgomery County Basketball Invitational on April 1 at Montgomery County Community College.