SADDLE BROOK, N.J. — Lola Sims burst with pride as her 13-year-old son, Gabriel, stole the ball and bolted down the field at the Saddle Brook Angels' season open yesterday afternoon at Avon Park’s soccer fields.
Gabriel, who has epilepsy, could barely run last year.
"There's been mega-improvement," said Sims, of Elmwood Park.
Township residents James and Monica Maniscalco created Special Angels in 2012 for youngsters like their 11-year-old daughter, Samantha — who has a rare chromosome abnormality — to participate in.
“This is really to motivate a healthy lifestyle and introduce children with special needs to the fundamentals of soccer,” said Monica, who has her masters degree in special education.
This is the first year that therapy clowns are available to help Monica and Pat the Therapy Dog de-escalate situations. James, meanwhile, leads the program with two other coaches and help from the Saddle Brook High School soccer team.
Young athletes ages 5 to 16 complete 15-20 minutes of warm-up drills and then scrimmage against one another for an hour, beginning at 2 p.m., every Saturday for eight weeks.
“This is fantastic for the community,” said Mayor Robert White, a onetime high school football player who rooted from the sidelines. "We need this."
The Mansicalcos never expected Angels Soccer would double as a support network.
"As a parent of a child with with special needs, you feel that you’re alone, that no one is in your same situation," Monica Maniscalco said. "It's a big thing that you can talk to other parents and say sometimes that you just want to scream and yell because your child can’t tie their shoelaces."
It's also been more effective in building young Gabriel Sims's speed, endurance and correcting his foot pronation than medical attention ever has, his mother said.
"Physical therapy is out and athletic programs are in," Lola Sims said. “High five for him.”
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