By Paige Kieffer
The Minnetonka High School Football Team and Student Support Services hosted a football camp for special education students Aug. 8 at Minnetonka’s Einer Anderson Stadium.
The camp included more than 30 students in grades 3-12 and 60 volunteers from the football team.
“You’re working with some special kids tonight and some of these kids have dreamed about being on a football field while some have dreamed about saying hello to you in the halls while others have gotten excited thinking that you may reach out to them,” said Michelle Ferris, executive director of student support services to the football team volunteers before the event. “Recently I had a parent ask if there is anything Minnetonka could do to help build a community for kids with special needs. We do a pretty good job in our district and we have great teachers and great staff, but for our students if we can look more at being inclusive and including them in our community it really starts with you. While tonight you’re going to work with some pretty awesome kids, it doesn’t stop there. I think the thing that you can do that will be the most impactful is to learn about the students you meet tonight, learn about their hopes and dreams, learn about special education and special needs and disabilities but also make a friend for life.”
The football players helped make the experience amazing for the special needs students who participated, who have physical, sensory and learning disabilities.
Ferris said, “These activities help build confidence, relationships, sense of community and they make lifelong friendships and mentors.”
Football Coach Dave Nelson developed the football camp after hearing about a similar football clinic in Wisconsin, called the Difference Maker Camp, that brings players of all abilities together to play football.
“I thought it was a great idea and wanted to do it here,” Nelson said. “I thought it would be great for our athletes here and our community.”
Nelson also wanted to bring the clinic to Minnetonka’s special needs students because his grandson Riggins Larson, who has the genetic disorder CDG-1A and is confined to a wheelchair, is a special needs student. Riggins participated in the camp.
“It’s great for the special education athletes because football is America’s game and they love the game and it gets them out on the field with our players and a lot of them will be in high school together and hopefully they will have a friend for life,” Nelson said.
“I feel like there aren’t enough activities available because he needs someone to help him do everything,” said Riggins’ mother Ashley Larson. “It’s great he’s having the experience and to be with other kids.”
This experience was also very personal for football player Daniel Viger, whose sister Madeleine has autism.
“These events are so big for kids with special needs, Viger said. “It’s a great opportunity to get out here, because I know they don’t get to all the time. For my sister, she loves throwing the ball around with me even though she doesn’t play sports. For them it’s great to get out of the house and smile and make new friends is a great experience. I think were working more on opportunities like this for special education students, but I think as a community it can always be better. This is one step forward.”
The team members taught special needs students how to do a touchdown dive, passing, tackling, receiving, and punt, pass and kick.
“It’s amazing seeing the smile on the kids’ faces and seeing them light up from doing drills and throwing the ball around,” said Ty Barron, team captain. “They’re so happy and you can tell they want to be here.”
Lucas Hagen, who has Down syndrome, said he enjoyed participating in the football clinic because it gave him a chance to play with his brother Jacob.
“I wanted to play with my brother and be out here on my own,” Lucas said. “I got to wrestle a lot of big dudes and I liked catching the football. It was fun!”
“The primary reason this event is so important is because you get these athletes that are in the halls at school and they’ve just found a way to connect with these kids with special needs,” said Lucas’ mother Julie Hagen. “They‘ve probably found out they have more in common than they probably thought they did. I know that our kids with special needs got so much out of this and I believe the players also learned quite a bit. It’s a great team-building opportunity. … This breaks down all those barriers and fear. Hand them a football and the communication starts.”
Chris Roles, whose son Sam who has autism, participated in the camp, said that this and other local integrated sports event have been very beneficial in improving his disability.
“Sam’s confidence level soars, he’s been able to go off medications because he’s getting better and he can find friends and people that understand what he’s going through,” Roles said. “I want the school district to do more like this because it’s very beneficial for our kids and it’s great for the players volunteering.”
Follow Paige Kieffer on Facebook at facebook.com/mnsunsailor.