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Soccer Players Serve as the Hands and FEET of Christ

MBU sports team are often involved with various opportunities to give back to the St. Louis communities. One way the MBU men’s soccer team recognizes the value of serving as the hands and feet of Christ is through playing soccer each spring with special needs children as part of the SPENSA program.

Photo by Ben Randolph

Missouri Baptist University soccer players have helped with SPENSA-sponsored camps in St. Louis each spring for several years, and team members agree it is one of the most important outreaches they do as a team.

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SPENSA — an acronym for Special Needs Soccer Association — has provided a life-changing service to special needs children for decades, and their goal for the future is “to continue to provide an opportunity for young people with special needs while ensuring we are teaching our volunteers how to serve others,” according to Janet Oberle, the organization’s president.

“Our vision is to engage the local community to participate as volunteers with SPENSA in order to help teach young people how to serve others, how to recognize the gift of being able bodied and able minded, how to value each person in this world and break down barriers that may exist between kids with special needs and kids without special needs,” Oberle said in an email.

This is the mission of the fully volunteer-run St. Louis-based organization under the U.S. Youth Soccer TOPSoccer program, which is focused on giving children with special needs the chance to play soccer for free.

Oberle got involved with SPENSA in 1989 and has been on the board since 2005. Since her start, the organization has grown significantly.

“I first volunteered while I was in high school in the late 1980s,” said Oberle. “We used to only have a fall session, but as interest drove it, we added a spring session as well.”

Both sessions are 6-8 weeks long and include a one-hour training session every Saturday morning. With more interest in the program growing, more participants and volunteers have become involved.

Along with the weekly practices, SPENSA participants occasionally get the opportunity to train with professional teams and even play at halftime of big local games.

“We have over 140 participants and a pool of hundreds of volunteers who come out sporadically,” said Oberle. “We have a group of coaches who volunteer consistently that numbers about 20-25 who really help run the sessions.”

Being entirely run by volunteers, SPENSA is always looking for people to get involved and buddy up with a player during the weekly training sessions.

They also partner with local colleges and high schools, including Missouri Baptist University, Saint Louis University and Ladue High School, as well as club soccer programs, area youth groups, confirmation groups, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and more.

“We have also been fortunate that we have some key organizations or individuals who have done some fundraising for the organization, which we are so grateful for, as we are committed to the program being free for our families,” said Oberle.

Fundraised money allows SPENSA to provide shirts, backpacks, winter hats and hoodies with the organization’s logo on it so that players can proudly show off the team they play for.

Ben Boyd, an MBU senior last year who majored in physical education, and Justin Schuttenberg, also a senior last semester who majored in behavioral science, were both players on the Spartan men’s soccer team and have volunteered at SPENSA multiple times with the team.

“Being able to help out and spend time with those kids has been a pretty cool experience,” said Boyd. “Growing up playing I think I may have taken some of my opportunities for granted, so volunteering for SPENSA has been a cool way for me to give back to the game that has given me so much.”

The men’s soccer program volunteers once a year with each player pairing up with a child on a Saturday training session to kick a ball around with them, encourage them to get involved and simply spend some quality time enjoying the sport with them.

“I think my favorite experience while volunteering was when they partnered me up with a kid and told me he was a ‘runner,’” said Schuttenberg. “They weren’t wrong either, we ran around the soccer park for the entire hour.”

The spring session begins in April each spring, and the Spartan soccer team always participates. SPENSA holds its weekly training sessions at World Wide Technology Soccer Park, home of the city’s professional team, STL FC.

Volunteering for SPENSA is an opportunity to get involved with a meaningful organization in the local community, and they are always looking for more people to join.

“People interested in volunteering to be a buddy can come out whenever they are able to volunteer,” said Oberle. “People who are looking for a more in-depth connection to the organization can let us know and we can work to ensure they have a more regular coaching role if we can count on them to be present consistently.”

More information is available on SPENSA’s website, and for those interested in volunteering, contact Shirley McBroom, the organization’s volunteer coordinator and secretary, on the website.

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Ben Randolph

Ben Randolph

Ben Randolph is a staff journalist for MBU Timeline. Randolph is a student-athlete, studying public relations and starting for the Spartans soccer team. The St. Louis native loves to use his free time traveling whenever he can, watching movies and spending time with family and friends.

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