When Bolton resident Bob Moalli could not find a local sports program for his son, he decided to start one of his own.
Four years ago, Moalli’s son, who struggles with social issues, was taking well to a special sports program in Sudbury, and Moalli and his wife were happy to find an outlet for their son to socialize with other children. However, the Moallis wanted to find something closer.
“We wanted to be able to meet people in our community that were struggling with the same challenges,” said Moalli. “We set about asking questions as to whether or not there were people interested in building this.”
This led him to Joan Finger, a Bolton resident and chairperson of the Nashoba Regional School District Special Education PAC program, who was enthusiastic about the idea of starting a local sports program for special athletes. Calling it Nashoba Unified, they set up a basketball season at the Emerson building in Bolton. Rather than focus on athletics and competition, they centered it on partnering special needs kids with volunteers and in doing so, creating lasting social bonds.
It was a success, and Moalli and Finger added a fall soccer season a year later. For that, they enlisted the help of Jim Henry of Stow. Henry had been active in Stow’s soccer program and initially thought they were just looking for help getting started.
“I thought I was going to help facilitate fields and a few soccer balls. Showed up there the first day of practice and Bob’s like ‘OK, what are we doing.’ I started coaching from there,” Henry said.
Since then, Henry has become a vital and energetic part of both the weekly soccer sessions at the Stow Community Park and the basketball season, even getting his two sons, Jimmy, 13, and Keven, 11, involved and sharing their father’s enthusiasm.
“Now that they’ve formed relationships with the kids, they love it,” Henry said.
Sam Shepherd, a senior at the Bromfield School in Harvard, is another volunteer at Nashoba Unified. Though he is only two weeks into his first season with the program, he has had past experience coaching kids, experience that’s proving to be useful on the fields.
“Sometimes, you just take a different approach to get what you’re trying to teach across. I think it’s pretty fun,” Sam said.
For Mike and Melissa Clericuzio of Clinton, Nashoba Unified has been a joy for both them, their daughter Lacey, 11, who is deaf, and their son Cole, 10, who volunteers. After Clinton’s soccer team didn’t work for Lacey, the Celericuzios enrolled her in a program in Clinton, similar to Nashoba Unified. Unfortunately, the Clinton program began to sputter and when Cole heard about Nashoba Unified at school, they decided to try it.
“Within the very first day we felt very welcome by everybody — by the parents, by the kids, and the faculty of the Unified program,” said Mike Clericuzio.
Lacey is the only deaf child in the program, but that has only encouraged both the athletes and the volunteers to find ways to accommodate her.
“They really made her feel accepted by introducing her to everybody using sign language that my wife interpreted for her. And [they] even said, ‘This is Lacey’s signed name; this is how you say good job.’… And I was really excited to see the kids go directly up to Lacey and go out of their way to say hello and use the signs that they learned that day,” said Clericuzio.
Another thing the coaches did to get Lacey involved was to switch the way Red Light Green Light was played. Rather than just yell the color, the coaches now hold up appropriately colored flags.
“Learning a few signs to communicate, I think that’s neat for everybody. It’s a win win,” said Henry.
While all of this occurs on the field, another sort of program occurs on the sidelines. There, the parents of the special athletes get a chance to relax and to talk with other parents about the challenges and rewards of raising a child with special needs.
Moalli spoke of a father new to the program “[who] wanted to be participating with his boy. And I said look, I want you to see these people sitting on the sidelines. Those are all the parents. They’re sitting there and that’s where we want you. Not because we don’t want you doing something with your son, but because we think that’s where you need to be — on the sidelines, talking to parents. And I think he got it. His son was 5, and he’s just starting the journey. And we want him to know that that’s a support network that he can leverage.”