Smyrna’s Marissa McClenton was looking to make some money to pay for soccer apparel when she made a deal that has helped change the community in Smyrna.
In exchange for the soccer gear, she was asked to volunteer with 3-8 year olds, and ultimately in the TOPSoccer program at the Smyrna Clayton Soccer Club. It’s a program helping athletes with mental or physical disabilities learn the sport.
She met her eventual partner Jacob, who has Autism, and it became on eye-opening relationship.
“Through helping him with that, I was able to get into the world of Unified Sports, and I kind of understand them more than most other kids my age.”
With her work in the soccer club blossoming, Smyrna Basketball coach Andrew Mears convinced Marissa that she needed to be a part of their new unified football team. That understanding she learned with Jacob could branch out into other sports.
“What I realize is that they’re people. We don’t want baby them. I’m going to talk to them like they’re my friend. I see them in the hallway, I say “hey”, I’m silly with them. They’re not any different from us, except they were born different. Why would I treat them any different than how I treat my own friends, and a lot of people don’t have that.”
The Smyrna Unified Football Team is a band of friends. Marissa recalled a moment when Brandon Clark found the end zone, and it played out almost like their school’s 2-time defending state champion football team, except maybe better.
“I feel he has more fun with it,” Marissa said. “One time he made a touchdown and he did the thing with the shirt where he pulled it open. We all died. He has so much fun with it, and this is an opportunity to do it, so we just play for them.”
Marissa is a standout on the basketball and soccer teams at Smyrna, but she couldn’t come up with a position for herself, other than “helping her teammates get into position so they can play.”
“They need a little bit more guidance. Some players get more wrapped up in the game. Part of what I do is I’m in there more for them than for myself. They need to get as involved as they can, so I help them with that, because they’re there just like we are.”
While Marissa is shining with her special needs classmates, she said that’s not her direct career path.
Instead, Marissa’s plan is to get into a strong environmental science school, but that doesn’t mean she’s closing the door helping those with special needs.
“I went to a convention, and people were making national parks accessible to people with special needs. I want to work in national parks in environmental science. It’s the two things I love in one, so if I get a opportunity that’s something I’d love to pursue in the future.”
For now, Smyrna’s Marissa McClenton will get to pursue a Special Olympics/DIAA Unified Flag Football State Championship Saturday afternoon at Delaware Stadium, with a group of teammates who are lucky to have her by their sides.
Seems like a fair trade for some soccer apparel doesn’t it?