Over a dozen members of the New York Red Bulls spent time last week at the Camp Shriver Special Olympics facilities in Lawrenceville, NJ. Each player committed over two hours of their time to interact with groups of special needs athletes by showing them the ropes with soccer tricks, assisting them in various outdoor activities, playing video games and even testing out their ping-pong skills. By the end of the week, it was hard to determine who enjoyed it more – the players, or the participants.
“We were only there for a couple of hours but you build relationships with these athletes so quickly that they really create a bond with you,” said goalkeeper Jeremy Vuolo. “So after two hours, you know, you have a guy holding your hand or giving you a big hug. It was really fun.”
This isn’t the first time Vuolo has offered a hand in working with special needs athletes. Prior to working with the Special Olympics, Vuolo organized a race called the “Hartwick Hill Race,” which worked in conjunction with the Family Resource Network to help underprivileged and special needs athletes in the community. It’s a cause he’s a firm believer in and one he’s always ready to participate in, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy also lent a helping hand over the course of the week. Known throughout the soccer community for his continuous humanitarian work, Ballouchy was eager to get to the facility and enjoy a day out in the sun with the nearly 100 participants. To him, any community work carries with it a more personal meaning.
“I come from obviously a poor neighborhood, and being in Morocco, we didn’t always have nice balls, nice cleats, nice stuff to play with,” Ballouchy said. “We always kind of played with whatever we could. So for me to be able to do that now for special needs athletes or even if we go to these camps and there’s athletes that can’t afford to join clubs because they’re too expensive – for us to do things like that I’m always very, very happy.”
“I’ve been excited to go to the Special Olympics for a while,” he added. “And to get there and see there facility, it was amazing.”
“Amazing” is just one word that can be used to describe the Special Olympics facility, which rivals any training facility for a professional sports league, team or competition.
“We were all floored because it was just a huge facility for these athletes,” Vuolo said. “It was awesome.”
Red Bulls rookie Connor Lade made a mid-week visit to Camp Shriver, motivated not only to help but to also give back in a way that left a lasting impression when he was younger.
“I remember being at a young age when all you want to do was get out there with a ball and just to see that with these athletes,” Lade said. “You can’t put anything on that. It’s just refreshing to see.”
To learn more about the Special Olympics, visit SpecialOlympics.org.