Just about everybody has been on a team.
Right now, at Chelsea High School (CHS), fall sports teams in the realms of football or soccer are preparing to start practice and begin the team gelling process that most everyone has been part of at one time or another.
Whether it’s Little League, soccer or even an academic project – the team concept is pretty much a cornerstone of youth.
It’s almost taken for granted.
However, for many visually impaired young people at CHS, such an experience is often foreign or even out of reach due to the challenges of their impairment.
For two CHS students, though, the team concept has been restored through an innovative game called ‘Goal Ball’ that is similar to soccer, but specifically tailored for those with visual impairments. In fact, participants and Coach Stephanie Haffa are preparing for the start of their season this coming September, and members of last year’s inaugural team spoke to the Record recently about how Goal Ball has been transformative in their experience at CHS.
“I feel like a burden sometimes because other students don’t want to help me and I don’t want to be a burden,” said CHS incoming Sophomore Precious Perez. “In Goal Ball, we have expectations, we huddle and we’re all treated the same. There are no adaptations or ‘helps’ needed to play. Everyone is blindfolded and everyone is equal in the game. It feels so good to say to my friends that I’m going to practice. I am part of a team. It can be a matter of pride for us.”
The opportunity to play came via the organization ViStars Inc. that unites visually-impaired young people in Chelsea and all over the North Shore in an after-school program based in Malden.
In fact, last year’s inaugural Goal Ball team, which featured Chelsea residents Jade Lara and Precious Perez, became such a success that the team was picked to present their experiences in a speech this past July at the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) conference in Orlando.
“NFB is the largest blind advocacy group in the world and this was the largest convention of blind people,” said Jane Ulwick-Sacca, who is a founder of ViStars and the team sponsor. “The invitation came because the team members did a presentation at the NFB state chapter meeting in Boston. One of the national directors went and was totally charmed. So, the national organization invited them to attend this conference and make the same presentation. Their trip was totally sponsored by NFB.”
Perez, Lara (who has since graduated and will be headed to Brandeis University later this month), and others on the team from neighboring communities had a great experience in Orlando – and they were actually able to get some tips from former U.S. Goal Ball champions.
Lara said she found a real home with the ViStars program and on the Goal Ball team. She said she had tried to participate at CHS, but it was just too difficult because of her visual impairment.
“I used to be so terrified of after-school groups because I felt so uncertain and lost there,” she said. “I think the blindness definitely plays a large part in that. I hate to admit it, but it is ever-present. I remember going in to a community service group and feeling overwhelmed. We broke up in groups and I didn’t know what to do. I just sat there feeling really intimidated. I never really get that involved in my high school because I had the fear of not knowing what to do. ViStars and the Goal Ball team are like my second home. They are a place where I can come be confident and be a leader.”
Last year, the team had to travel some distance to find teams to play – including trips to the South Shore. However, Ulwick-Sacca said Goal Ball has recently been approved by the U.S. Department of Education as a sport for students with visual impairments, and it is also an official Paralympic sport. With those things happening, she said she hopes to see more teams form in the area.
“Our goal is to have a league of teams that we play regularly,” said Ulwick-Sacca. “We’re sort of on the cusp of something that could be very important for students with visual impairments. We started the team because we saw that the students had never been on a softball or baseball team. When they were children, they weren’t able to do any of that. I just wondered why it had to be that way. We started the team and it really took off.”
And while the CHS participants said they were happy to have the experience themselves, both Perez and Lara said they wanted to expand the team quickly so that young children who are blind will have chances they didn’t have – and will be able to take what they learn as kids to an official team at CHS.
“We entered into this with the hopes that it would lead to younger kids being involved in a sport – maybe a Goal Ball Little League,” said Lara. “We hoped that they could have the chance to be on a team, or that at least it’s an option that’s out there for them.”
The CHS/ViStars Goal Ball team will have it’s first game during the second week of September.