By Kim Wade
It’s Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. but the gym at the South Bryan County Recreation Center is empty.
“We usually have several kids here by now,” Kay Green, director of the rec center, says. She continues to set up the stereo and equipment for the scheduled indoor soccer practice for Special Olympics.
Green began weekly sports activities for athletes who qualify for Special Olympics a little over a year ago, but it seems she’s having trouble getting the word out.
“We are a certified site for Special Olympics and if we had more participants we could go to bigger events in Savannah and Statesboro, but we are still a small group,” Green says.
Any children ages 4 and up are welcomed to come to the rec center on Wednesday night from 6-7 p.m. and enjoy sports ranging from indoor soccer to T-ball (there is no age cap so older athletes can participate). The program is free of charge.
“I try to change the sport every four to six weeks,” Green explains. “But we are really more about having fun than turning the kids into serious athletes.”
The group may be small, but it becomes obvious as the athletes begin to arrive, it’s a very tight-knit group that resembles a family more than a team.
Kay looks out the door and sees Noah Maldonado, age 12, has arrived.
Noah runs onto the gym floor with arms outstretched.
“Ms. Kay!” he yells.
Green and volunteer Andy Galland stop setting up equipment and yell “Noah!” in unison.
Noah hugs Green and gives Galland a high five. But the hugs don’t stop there. Noah’s mother, Tabatha Lovitt, and his two younger sisters walk into the gym and more hugs follow.
Noah has been coming to the Special Olympic’s group for over a year and he knows the routine. He insists it’s time to set up the portable soccer goals and instructs Galland to help him.
“Ms. Kay, turn on the music,” Noah says.
Green heads toward the stereo, but Noah is distracted by the arrival of his teammate Naveen Kormath, age 19.
“Kormath!” everyone yells.
Kormath gives a smile and a wave and quickly heads to the metal basket of soccer balls at the far end of the gym.
Noah claps and jumps up and down. “Music, music, music!” he yells.
“Okay, Noah, let’s warm-up,” Green says.
She begins each session with a little dance party.
“It’s a good way to warm-up their bodies and it gives them a chance to get comfortable with the group,” Green explains.
“Cha-Cha Slide” pipes through the speakers and everyone hits the dance floor, including the families.
Galland is working on his third week as a volunteer with the group, but he looks like he’s been a regular for a while.
A native of England, Galland explains everyone in town knows he loves participating in soccer with his children and someone asked him to come out and help Green with the indoor soccer program.
“I’ve never worked with Special Olympics before,” Galland says. “I love it and I love these kids. It’s so nice to be able to help out and it’s a lot of fun.”
Galland did admit he’s surprised more folks don’t come out to support the group.
“We have such a large soccer community here in Richmond Hill and I can’t believe more people don’t come out to work with these children,” he says. “Maybe they just don’t know we are here.”
Noah tells Galland it’s time to set up the orange cones around the gym. Noah points and Galland places the cone in the exact spot. It’s more of a game than serious set up and the two laugh when Noah puts the cones on his head.
Green is busy kicking and throwing the ball back and forth with Kormath.
“Here Kormath, watch me,” Green says.
She bounces the soccer ball on her head and Kormath mimics her moves. Kormath’s mother stands nearby and can only smile as she watches her son enjoy himself. Green sets a line of soccer balls on the floor and Kormath kicks every ball into the portable goals.
“Awesome!” Green yells. “I’m so proud of you today, Kormath.”
While Noah doesn’t seem as interested in kicking goals, his family enjoys playing indoor soccer in another corner of the gym.
Noah’s mother Tabatha Lovitt says the program is such an important part of their weekly routine.
“I love coming here,” she says. “This is perfect for Noah because he doesn’t like to stick to one activity and it’s okay for him to do that here.
“I don’t have to get a sitter for my two daughters to come here and I have time to give them one-on-one playtime while Noah is running around with the others.”
Lovitt adds that they are a military family and they have lived in Richmond Hill since December 2011.
“There aren’t any other activities I can put Noah in,” she says. “I don’t know what I would do without this program.”
The hour is almost over and everyone glistens with sweat.
“Ms. Kay, it’s time to go,” Noah says.
“Yes, Noah, it’s about time to quit,” she replies. “Are you ready to go?”
Noah shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I want to stay and wait for more kids to come.”
The Special Olympics group meets every Wednesday from 6-7 p.m. at the South Bryan Recreation Center on Timber Trail Drive. For more information to enroll as an athlete or a volunteer, please call Kay Green at 756-4456 or the main office at 756-4075.