By: Thomas Crone
Thomas Crone is a St. Louis native with more than 25 years of freelance writing experience. You can follow Thomas on Twitter at @billikenextra. Check back to SLUBillikens.com throughout the season for more feature stories.
Just shy of 20 years ago, Katie Stewart Bokern and Nick Bokern were competing for their respective soccer teams at Saint Louis University, each of them four-year contributors. Stewart was a member of the inaugural edition of the SLU women’s team, founded in 1996; while Bokern, son of a former Bills standout, Jim Bokern, was a linchpin midfielder for the men’s side. As in some other cases, this Billiken soccer player duo wound up dating and eventually married. They’ve now got five children and have set deep family roots in South St. Louis.
During their tenure at SLU, both of them wound up volunteering for the Special Needs Soccer Association (SPENSA), which has offered weekend soccer clinics for a generation of children with mental and physical challenges. The two eight-week SPENSA sessions, one in the spring and another currently running for the fall, offer not only chances for kids and young adults to experience the joys of fitness in a safe-and-fun environment, it allows a host of volunteer opportunities for high school and college teams across the region.
The Bokerns are among the hundreds of young people who’ve taken part in those Saturday morning sessions with SPENSA through the years. And, these days, their soon-to-be-eight-year-old, Lauren, is among the participants.
“You feel amazing after this,” said Katie Bokern this past weekend, speaking here of the emotion felt by players, volunteers and parents alike. “For any of them, you feel amazing. Even now, as a parent, it’s super-nice to be here. And Lauren’s so excited to come. The other week, she was up from 2:30 in the morning until we came, just thinking about going to soccer. We’ve been up since 6:30 today. She’s just champing at the bit to get here every week.”
Like many kids that attend SPENSA, Lauren took a bit of time to warm to the environment. At first, she didn’t want to leave the stands and the comfort level of being with her parents and siblings. In time, she began to move towards the action, walking and running laps around the large, World Wide Technology Soccer Park artificial turf field that SPENSA calls home. Next came a bit of on-the-ball work and added confidence; she was acclimating in little bits, week-after-week. And, eventually, she made her way out-and-onto the big field, taking part in individual drills, but doing so amidst the bigger group. These days, she’s an active participant in the small-side games that kick-off about half-way through each weekly session.
Bokern feels that the benefits of Lauren’s participation run a lot longer than the one-hour playing periods.
“She’s excited afterward,” Bokern said. “She has a routine, like the fact that we get a snack at the gas station on the way home. She’s happy all week. And she’s really gotten into it. She puts on our other kids’ soccer jerseys and wants to go outside to practice and play. She knows that every Saturday is coming. She definitely was talking about it yesterday. I almost didn’t want her talking about it more and not be able to go to sleep.”
A BEAUTIFUL DAY
As Saturday mornings in the fall go, this past weekend was one you’d hope to copy, weather-wise, a stellar, early-fall morning. Just prior to the 9 a.m.-arrival of participants, about five-dozen volunteers were stationed around Janet Oberle, SLU’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics. A longtime volunteer and board member with SPENSA, one of the association’s primary champions off-the-field, Oberle gave directions to the large group, under blue skies streaked by big, blue, puffy clouds. Among the group were several dozen SLU athletes who know her enthusiasm well, with large numbers on-hand from women’s soccer, softball and field hockey and men’s basketball and baseball.
“You have a gorgeous day today,” she said with her customary high-energy. “It should be a great time to have fun and play soccer with some folks.”
Since she was dealing with a largely-youthful group, she took a minute to remind them to be emotionally present, to let their social media habits take a rest for 60-minutes, a call that was pretty effective.
“No one else you know is awake,” she said, only half-in-jest. “Nothing else is happening. You can wait until 10 to check in.”
And that’s just what they did over the next 75-minutes. While just a few of the SPENSA participants were on-hand as Oberle delivered the pep-up speech, they’d come pouring in over the next quarter-hour. By 9 o’clock, balls were scattered all over the field and pop-up goals were everywhere. The players, generally aged between 5-21 years-old, were paired up with buddies, sometimes with two or three of them. On the close side of the field, the youngest and least-experienced players simply kicked balls back-and-forth with their volunteers, or lightly tossed them, or simply jogged around. Some played with hula hoops. In one case, a group of college students simply read a Dora the Explorer book to their player.
In the central portion of the field, kids with a year, or two, of experience were playing a game with half-sized goals and their volunteer buddies mostly watched; a few, though, drifted onto the field to offer encouragement or to help their players up after collisions or falls. Further into the back half of the field, the oldest players were taking part in individual drills; though no heading is allowed, players shot on nets, did long passing, or attempted juggles. While players generally phase out of the program at age 21, some edge past that age and stick around, literally growing up in the program and these Saturday soccer periods.
Just as their ages vary, the reasons for their participation do, as well. Some players have no physical restrictions, but they struggle to keep focus or to take part in group activities. Others are more-limited from the physical perspective, taking part in drills with the use of walkers or wheelchairs. But take part they do, for 60-solid minutes.
At the end of the day’s session, Oberle led her weekly invocation of the Hokey-Pokey. It’s a fun way for everyone to act silly and leave the field with a smile on their face. But for some kids, who get locked in and want to stay for more time, it’s also a gentle signal that this day’s time together is over.
Or as Bokern simply said, “It lets everyone know that it’s time to go.”
And, just as quickly as everyone arrived, everyone left. Kids, parents, players. By 10:10 a.m., the field was pretty empty and only a few volunteers were left, pushing around nets, collecting lost personal items, the usual stuff of a breakdown. But the memories and bonds were already forming.
Braxton Martinez is going into his senior season as a SLU Billikens baseball player. An established, three-year starter and among the team’s top hitters, he’s serious about his craft and the work that goes into it. By the time he arrived at the Soccer Park this past weekend, he’d been up for three-hours and had already completed his lifting routine for the day with SLU’s strength staff. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who’d clearly woken up not long before arriving at the near-West County field, he’d already begun his day in earnest.
And while he’s aware that he makes sacrifices to play ball at a high level, his weekly attendance at SPENSA gives him an added sense of motivation and perspective.
“For us, personally, we think that what we’re doing is tough, what we’re doing in our lives is hard,” he said. “We don’t always get a chance to step back and appreciate how fortunate we are as college athletes. It’s fun to be out here playing soccer. There’s such joy among the volunteers.
“Usually, our whole team comes,” he added. “When the freshmen come for the first time, we tell them it’s actually a lot of fun. It takes guys two-minutes for them to see what kind of fun they’re having. It’s something our team and other teams love to do.”
For a couple of sessions now, Martinez has been teamed up with Lauren Bokern. It was random chance that brought them together; at first, she was just a kid needing a buddy and he was standing on the field, waiting for an assignment. But over the course of months of soccer Saturdays together, the two have developed a nice understanding, a comfort level that’s easily regained with each new season of soccer.
“She’s awesome,” Martinez said of Lauren. “When I first started working with her last year, she was very timid towards me and the other guys. But when she warms up to you, she’s a big ball of energy. She honestly brightens my day every time I see her.”
Said Bokern, “I genuinely think he enjoys it.”
She quickly amended that to say, “I know he enjoys it. I can tell. Before SPENSA started this fall, he’d asked Janet if Lauren was taken and she said she wasn’t sure. Well, Lauren appeared right then. We weren’t there for three minutes and he took her and they were off. He’s been great for her. She likes him. She’ll hold his hand and give him hugs.”
There are a lot of those at SPENSA. With a lot of hugs being given - and gotten - by SLU’s student athletes and administrators, every Saturday morning, rain or shine.