Program brings soccer to special-needs kids



World Cup fever is rampant throughout South Florida, especially among smaller fans.

Oscar Amuz, a passionate soccer trainer born in Uruguay, is devoted, body and soul, to Hope for Autism, United for Soccer Foundation, also know as Autism Soccer, an organization he founded last year to teach the basics of soccer to about 120 children with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs.

“My children learn to share. They learn the day-to-day contact with other children,” Amuz said. “For a regular child, kicking a ball is simple. But I have children for whom kicking a ball is a miracle. To want to play soccer is in itself a miracle.”

On a recent Thursday, Amuz had the opportunity to give one of his classes at the 5inco Indoor Soccer Center of Hialeah, thanks to the telephone company Cricket Wireless, which joined the organization to bring soccer to a group of nine children, ages 4 to 6, and three adults with special needs.

The class was a prelude to the Cricket Music Festival and Soccer Tournament on Sunday that will feature live music and children’s activities to celebrate the final match of the World Cup.

“At this moment there is so much enthusiasm with the World Cup, and it’s having such a positive impact on the children here in Miami,” said Eduardo García, Cricket Wireless’ marketing director for South Florida.

García added that the class will not only show support of the local autistic community but also to give participants “a fun time and a chance to acknowledge their potential” as young athletes.

Amuz, who focused on teaching the children how to control the ball and kick it toward the goal, said the classes are essential to strengthen participants’ self-esteem, motor coordination, concentration and social interaction with other children.

Though there is a schedule for each class, Amuz said that it’s hardly ever followed. With his group of children there must be flexibility to deal with the unexpected.

Jacob Hamoui, a 6-year-old who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, began the program in October. The soccer classes, his mother Ayme Hamoui said, have helped him “extraordinarily.”

“During the first class, he would not let go of my husband,” Hamoui said. “In the second class he wanted to participate, but if my husband moved away, he would stop. In the third class, he went by himself but we had to remain in his visual field. Today, when he went in through the door, he turned around and said, ‘Bye, Mama!’ 

The most evident improvements that Hamoui has seen in her son are his balance and motor control.

“He was a child who had no coordination. He would start walking and, without any obstacle in front of him, he would stumble or wobble against a wall. Since he has been in the program, it hasn’t happened again. He has balance and feels safe,” said Hamoui.

“To work with these children you have to have a heart, but you also have to treat them as normal children. Sometimes we harm them when we try to overprotect them, because we don’t let them experiment,” Hamoui said. “Oscar is the type of person who pushes them, but you can tell he does it with the best of intentions. And they respond.”

Hamoui also said that Jacob has been able to make friends in the class, and that he talks about his classmates when he is getting ready for soccer class.

Naiara González, a 3-year-old girl, also attended a recent class, though not because she has a disability. Her mother, Luz González, brings her to class so that the girl can learn to interact and understand children who are different from her.

“Many children reject special children because they have physical and mental differences,” González said. “I bring my girl to practices to be in that atmosphere so that she doesn’t end up being one of those children who reject.”

Amuz charges $50 a month per child to pay for balls and uniforms, but he said that if a parent lacks the resources, he lets them enter the program anyway. Donations to Autism Soccer can be made through their fiscal sponsor, the American Autism Association.

Amuz’s motivation is to give an opportunity to all children to play and participate, regardless of the disabilities or limitations they may have.

“These children are difficult,” Amuz said. “They can kick you, claw you and bite you. But, in the end, they are children. And for the parents, the fact that someone would tell their child: ‘You are important to me, come play with me even though you may fail a thousand times,’ is what counts. They deserve everything.”

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