“I’ve got to get ready– he’s too good. He’s like a professional soccer player,” coach Ricardo Caparelli says as a child gets ready to kick the ball in the goal Caparelli’s guarding at Long Beach Futsal’s indoor soccer facility.
The child kicks and misses, but it doesn’t matter– what matters on this second Saturday in May is that these autistic children have the opportunity to learn soccer in a positive environment where they can play more freely.
This environment is found at Long Beach Futsal in Signal Hill, an indoor soccer facility that hosts a free soccer clinic on the second Saturday of each month for autistic children.
“We make it a class, but then we also make it that one hour where the kids can grab the ball and if they want to kick it, if they want to sit on it…it’s almost like their freedom to do as they wish for one hour,” said Emilia Lopez, who, along with Caparelli and her other five siblings, owns Long Beach Futsal. Futsal is a form of soccer played on a smaller field, Lopez says.
The process of starting this program began when Lopez contacted Jane Tipton, the founder of the organization Autism in Long Beach about having an event for autistic children, Tipton said. It started as a “pilot” program almost two years ago, and now it’s a monthly event, Lopez says.
The clinic features parents, volunteers and members of the Caparelli Family, who do the coaching, Tipton said. She originally wanted the clinic to have a focus on the social aspect of the sport.
“We wanted to teach them…to learn the beginnings, just the socialization part of drills, so when they do go into sports they know how to stand in line, they know what a team is,” Tipton says. “And it breaks down the barriers for the parents too because they’re not stressed out that their kid’s not listening.”
Indeed, Janette Sainz, a parent and Spanish-language translator for Autism in Long Beach, says she doesn’t feel stressed at all at Long Beach Futsal.
“We, as parents, we feel comfortable here because…our kids can be kids,” Sainz says. “We don’t have to worry about being stared at or judged, because…we go through that.”
Back on the field, a child drives the ball into the goal and keeps kicking it in. Lopez notices this and takes him aside so he can play with her son, a volunteer, and work on ball control.
Later on, Caparelli has everyone take a water break. One of the children is so excited he’s jumping up and down, so Caparelli gives him a hug.
“I love seeing my place happy with kids,” Lopez said. “It just makes my day.”
After the water break, Lopez has the kids line up to run a few laps. Her brother, Caparelli, runs a few laps with them, after which they high-five each other, and he gives them words of encouragement.
For a little while the children have an opportunity for free-play, but then Lopez asks them, “Who wants to play a game?”
“Oh my gosh, good luck with that,” says a smiling Annie Todd, a parent of an autistic child and a member of Autism in Long Beach.
But the game moves smoothly, with Lopez and Caparelli providing structure. They go over the rules with the children, ask them about the direction of the ball, and then start the game.
Goals are scored, with the requisite soccer celebration of “Gooooooooaaaaaaalllllllllll!” Afterwards, Lopez guides them toward their original positions, and they start again.
Some kids play, while others amble about, but they’re all smiling and they all seem excited about the game. Even the kids who aren’t playing (some are entranced by the clock) feel the energy.
“They pick up on that,” Todd says.
After the game, everyone claps and gathers together in a huddle. They put their hands in the middle of the huddle and yell, “Long Beach Futsal!”
The clinic’s over, but Eric Whitley’s son, Marcus, doesn’t want to leave.
“I want to stay,” Marcus says. “I want to stay.”