Mundelein woman honored for founding special-needs soccer league
The AYSO Very Important Player soccer program allows 30 children with mental or physical disabilities to play competitive soccer with the help of one-on-one volunteers. | Photo courtesy of Valerie Walker
Updated: March 13, 2013 11:58AM
MUNDELEIN — Valerie Walker was challenged more than a decade ago with starting a soccer program for children in Lake County who are unable to play the sport.
Now, families whose children have physical or mental disabilities will travel from as far as Antioch and Arlington Heights to celebrate the league’s 10 year anniversary on Sunday, March 10, in Mundelein.
Known as the Very Important Player, or VIP, program, about 30 Lake County players age 4 to 9 play soccer with help from nearly 70 youth volunteers.
Walker has lived in unincorporated Mundelein for 15 years, and the Village Board gave her a diversity award last month for helping to create a thriving American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) league based in the village.
More than 70 people attended the board meeting to see Walker receive her award, and even more are expected at the anniversary game.
Q. How does recreational soccer help children with disabilities?
A. Players develop social and emotional skills through their soccer experience, build friendships, and move forward with development milestones. Youth volunteers who participate as buddies increase their views of what is means to be different, need help and give of themselves.
Q. How did you first become involved with people who have special needs?
A. None of my four children have special needs, but they are all buddies in this program. I was already an AYSO board member when we decided to start this program. I grew up with a mother who had a progressive disability and that’s where my first-hand experiences come from.
Q. What’s different now compared to when you were growing up?
A. We were in a different place and time where people with any kind of disability became disliked and unwanted. Now, 25 years later, we’re giving one-on-one help to those people while simultaneously teaching our community.
Q. Do you believe society still struggles to integrate or accept people with special needs?
A. I think there is a lot of work behind us in accepting people with special needs in our daily lives, like at work or during recreation, but we still have work ahead of us in building relationships with these individuals. When people can’t relate, they build fears and distance themselves. We’ve come a long way, why stop now?
Q. What were the biggest struggles when this program started, compared to today’s goals?
A. One of the obstacles was creating a quality soccer experience instead of organized chaos. I think we accomplished this through our training and relationships with parents. One current obstacle marketing, since we’re all volunteers and we struggle to market the program after our full-time jobs and all the volunteering work.
Q. If you could do more, what would you idealistically add to the program?
A. I would develop a resource network for parents with special needs, so whether they participate in AYSO or not they can use us a resource. I would also like to create more travel tournament opportunities. It would make the experience similar to other soccer leagues. Another goal would be to reward our volunteers for their help. Other programs offer scholarships to their youth volunteers.
Q. Did having all those people at the board meeting make the award more meaningful?
A. Yes. After being told I won, the first thing I did was call and invited everyone I could. Our philosophy is “shared leadership” and I wanted everyone to share in this acknowledgement. A huge highlight was seeing players take pictures with my plaque.