It wasn’t your typical fall afternoon of football, though judging purely by the crowd’s reaction, it felt like the Georgia-Florida game.
Boys ages 4 to 6 scrambled on a miniature field Saturday in the playground of Challenged Child and Friends in Gainesville. The game was part of the organization’s new enrichment program, allowing children with special needs to interact in a recreational setting with their peers.
Most of the players lacked the focus and attention to run plays. Some still needed to grow into their uniforms. But parents said it was a point of pride to see their kids participate in sports activities they might otherwise never have the opportunity to enjoy.
“It makes me very proud to see my son playing football with others and enjoying himself, having a good time.” Adam Maddox said of his 5-year-old son Brad. “Challenged Child — they’ve done a lot for my son, as far as helping him grow and learn. This place is nothing short of a blessing.”
The crowd brought authenticity to the field beyond its enthusiastic cheering. After a few matches, the fond sentiment toward the game prompted parents to organize a “tailgating.”
“It’s nice to have a day when we can all come out in fellowship and have a good time with our kids and watch them play and get along,” Maddox said.
Not to leave the girls out, staff member Ashley Smith taught cheers the squad performed throughout the game and at “halftime.”
“They caught on really quickly,” Smith said. “They’re all very, very excited to do it. They love being able to jump up and down all the time and learning new cheers that they take home to show their parents.”
Staff member Hilary Hamilton remarked on how far the youngsters had come since the first games.
“They’ve come so far since day one,” Hamilton said. “The first game, a lot of them were just screaming and crying. Today, they were great.”
Shana Ramsey, one of the coaches, nodded in agreement. She said the program is the realization of a long-standing vision for the organization.
“This has been a dream of mine to have this at Challenged Child for a long time,” she said.
Executive Director David Earnest said sports aligns perfectly with Challenged Child’s goals.
“We’re hearing more and more that our kids need the same opportunities and chances that other children have,” Earnest said. “Our goal here is inclusion.”
He added that more is on the way, with a T-ball team in the works for the spring.