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September 14. 2013 12:38AM

Power Soccer

North Country group makes soccer accessible to people with disabilities


Aided by her father, Bob, North Country Storm player Bella Hibberd of Bethlehem challenges Hannah Fowler of Windsor, Vt., and the Upper Valley Wheelers for the ball. (COURTESY)

FRANCONIA -- When power soccer returns to northern New Hampshire next Sunday, a team of players who have been waiting eagerly for the new season to start will be ready to go.

The "power" in the sport's title refers to wheelchair power, and the members of the North Country Storm, like players on all athletic teams, present a range of personalities and abilities.

The Storm's members also have a host of disabilities that have kept them from competing in other settings. They therefore might be packing even more enthusiasm than their counterparts who play school soccer as they look forward to the upcoming eight weeks of matches - and even all the practice sessions that precede the games.

Bella Hibberd, 12, is a seventh-grader at Profile Middle School in Bethlehem, the town where she lives with her parents and four siblings. Because of cerebral palsy, she is non-verbal and limited in what she can do physically.

But playing power soccer - or when she's unable to play, at least being there to support her teammates and new friends - has made a huge difference in her life, her mother, April Hibberd, says.

Because Bella doesn't have a power chair - the Hibberds hope to acquire one with head-operated controls - her power is provided by someone pushing her chair. Special guards on the chair are used to push the ball.

The preparation and transportation required for Bella to take part in athletic events - she participates in hiking and skiing in addition to power soccer - requires a good deal of time and effort. No matter, April Hibberd says; Bella's response provides plenty of return on investment.

"As her mom, I want her to be as active as possible," April said. "It's just so worth it to see her smile and laugh."

Campton's Becca Coulter, a 15-year-old freshman at Plymouth Regional High School who also has cerebral palsy, is thrilled just having the opportunity to participate in athletics.

"It's amazing. I never thought I could play a sport," she said.

In power soccer, two teams of four players at a time attack, defend and use guards attached to their chairs to "spin-kick" the ball at their opponents' goal.

Coulter is especially appreciative of the volunteers who coach the players and officiate the games.

"They really make it easy for me to understand," she said.

Games take place in school gymnasiums. Next Sunday's season-opener for the Storm will be at the Profile High School gym in Bethlehem, starting at 3 p.m.

Sandy Olney, 54, of Easton heard about the effort to organize sports for people with disabilities about four years ago and was there when representatives of the United States Power Soccer Association came north to put on a clinic.

"I said, 'Oh, my gosh - this is what I've got to do,'?" Olney said, explaining how the seed that would become Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country was planted.

Now executive director of the organization, Olney works out of its office in downtown Franconia. Ninety people volunteer their time in an array of year-round activities that includes golf, tennis, fishing, swimming, gardening, kayaking and skiing.

Participation is open to people with disabilities from age 5 on up, Olney said, adding that around 150 people per year take part in ASPNC events.

It takes $175,000 per year to keep things running, and "so far, so good," she said.

The group's biggest fundraising efforts are in summer, and this year's generated $65,000, Olney said. Included was an "any which way you can" trek up the Mount Washington Auto Road. Climbers in various modes of transportation solicited sponsors, each with a goal of raising $6,288 - a dollar for every foot in height of New England's highest peak. The success of those efforts enabled the group to hire a part-time office administrator.

But plenty of work remains to be done.The modest fees collected from event participants account for only 20 percent of annual funding needs, Olney said, and volunteers are needed for all events, including the soon-to-start soccer games. Always open to adding more players, ASPNC is constantly on the lookout for additional funding and donations of power chairs, she added.For more information on Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country, go to the organization's website, www.AdaptiveSportsPartners.org, or call 823-5232.

bhookway@newstote.com


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