Every day you can change someone’s life with acts of kindness big or small, you can make a difference in a life-changing way. Together we can create a welcoming space for all and shine a light that we are growing and loving.
The North Shore Rovers are a non-profit football program that does just that.
Inspired by their eldest son who wanted to volunteer for the Special Olympics, Gail and Jack Steele created a football program for children with disabilities to encourage them to get out of their comfort zone, engage, play and most importantly, have fun to have.
The Rovers is a free program for every family. All players receive a uniform, a soccer ball and a trophy at the end of their season.
Divided into age groups ranging from 4 to 21 and their ability, players are divided into teams every Sunday where coaches and volunteers teach football, creating strong bonds and forging lasting friendships that are formed on the fields.
Beginning in 2011 with just 15 players at Swampscott, their program soon began to thrive. After much trial and error to get their message across in those early years on the north coast, a switch was flipped and word of the Rovers quickly spread to families across the region.
“There was definitely a learning curve. “We had to figure out how to reach out to the community to spread the word that our program existed,” Gail Steele said, gratitude evident in her voice. “It took us a couple of years to realize how much we’ve been in the papers and speaking to schools, it’s really grown through word of mouth from the volunteers and the players.”
The North Shore Rovers are affiliated with 32 North Shore cities and their numbers continue to grow at an extraordinary rate. Working alongside 120 high school players and 165 high school volunteers, players develop rewarding friendships with students outside of school and constantly learn new things.
“In the first five years we’ve seen tremendous growth,” noted Gail Steele. “Our program works 1-on-1 with a volunteer throughout the season and we began to see that it was more of a socially oriented program than a competitive program. That’s how we evolved from the Special Olympics Association to North Shore Rovers. When we made this change, we saw even more growth because we could create our friendlies with teams and keep them free for everyone.”
Volunteers pledge to spend every Sunday fulfilling the Rovers’ mantra to keep their players having fun. They can also be part of the ambassador program where they carry the message about the Rovers to various high schools and their football teams to attract more volunteers and players.
Volunteers can also take part in Rovers’ mentoring programme. Chosen by coaches to be on-field mentors, they demonstrate exceptional ability in dealing with all types of players.
“We started with middle to high school volunteer students because that was our kids’ age group at the time. We gathered our kids, their friends, and a few other local students,” Steele said. “It’s just magical to watch what’s happening with the players and the volunteers. I think that’s why they get up every Sunday to do this because they know they’re making such a big difference in their lives.”
Many organizations have made donations to North Shore Rovers to continue to support its growth over the years. Last month, Steele said, the Cummings Foundation donated $100,000 to the Rovers as part of its $25 million grant program. The Steeles are grateful for the opportunities their charitable program offers as they will receive that money over the next five years.
Though they have no plans to expand the Rovers to other locations, the Steeles welcome families from outside the North Shore region with open arms. They also actively seek to support the launch of other programs in the area for children with special needs.
“We want people to know that getting involved with our program here is really fun and very rewarding. Small things you do can make a big difference in someone else’s life,” Steele said.
The North Shore Rovers program begins again on September 11th and runs every Sunday thereafter in Salem. Registration is now open for players and volunteers. To register a player or become a volunteer, go to northshorerovers.com and click on ‘Online Registration’. Registration ends on September 7th and is free for everyone.