Sports Unity Program
Ask David Quatresols how the MRC Sports Unity Program—an innovative, community-based initiative for kids with special needs—began, and he answers with a single word: “Conversation.” One day, eight years ago, he was talking with a friend, Mark vonBerg, on a playing field in their town of Marlton, New Jersey, when Mark said he’d like to start a special aids program for soccer. Quatresols immediately replied, “Let’s do it!”
Together with a fellow coach, Jim Cucinatta, they soon organized a local chapter of a national, special needs, kick soccer program. One year later they decided to branch out, develop their own training and certification, and open their program to all kids, ages 5 to 18, with special needs who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to participate in sports. Today, Quatresols is Associate Commissioner of the Sports Unity Program (SUP), which organizes basketball, cheerleading, soccer, track, street hockey, swimming, football, and volleyball games for boys and girls with all variety of special needs. Games are simultaneously played on four adjacent fields, with players organized by level of ability, not age or size.
“This is an outlet that enables them to participate with like-minded children in a non-competitive setting, completely free of charge, and they love it,” Quatresols observes. “It’s the first time they ever got a medal, first time they ever got a trophy, and it excites them. We hand out jerseys at the beginning of a season and kids go to sleep in them!”
Asked what sort of needs the players have, Quatresols replies, “All sorts. We don’t categorize them per se, they range from different levels of autism to some children who are blind, some kids have Down Syndrome, some are in wheelchairs, some you wouldn’t even know they have a special need. We have the whole gamut. The way I look at it, and the way we all look at it is, they’re kids, they’re all special, God bless ‘em. When I coach them, I coach them as I would anyone, they don’t get any special treatment. I treat them as they should be treated and that’s how the program is run.”
In addition to certifying Marlton Recreation Council coaches, SUP also trains and certifies “buddies,” who are middle and high school student volunteers, each of whom are paired with a special needs player to support and help them during games. “We work with schools in terms of finding buddies. Every child has a buddy.” Quatresols says. “The structure of the program is that we have coaches, we have buddies and we have kids… we have players. And the buddies are the ones who work with the player. A child comes to a program, the buddies are waiting there, and the player will pick one. What we try to encourage is that the same buddy plays with the same player, because a lot of them get to be friends, which is really what we want.”
In addition to finding friendship, all the kids who participate in the Sports Unity Program come away with meaningful rewards. Parents of special needs children have told Quatresols how much better their child is doing in school, how much their interactions with other kids, and their focus, have improved. Several of the students who volunteered as buddies have gone on to pursue majors that focus on children with special needs at university.
Quatresols says a valuable sponsor also came to the program simply through a conversation—this time between him and Jay Stillman, Vice President of Impact Deposits Corp. “Jay is a great buddy of mine, I’ve known him for years, and I would always talk about the program, and he’d say: “This is something I think I want to be a part of.” So, he got certified, he’s a coach, and then he asked, is there anything I can do to help? And I said, you know we’re always looking for sponsors; if there’s anything your company can do to help that would be fantastic.”
Jay remembers learning about David’s desire to work with special needs kids, and how the MRC Sports Unity Program is a model for any kid’s program. “We provided funds to help them provide this wonderful outlet free of charge. The list of children that have benefited has grown to almost a thousand kids.” Stillman says, what’s more, the MRC Sports Unity Program is exploring expanding the program again next year, this time to include games for adults with special needs.
“This is an outlet that enables them to participate with like-minded children in a non-competitive setting, completely free of charge, and they love it. It’s the first time they ever got a medal, first time they ever got a trophy, and it excites them. We hand out jerseys at the beginning of a season and kids go to sleep in them!”
David Quatresols, MRC Sports Unity Program