By Harry Minium

It wasn't a requirement of her internship, but that didn't matter to Morgan Hall.

The Old Dominion University women's soccer player is studying to become a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. While interning with the Norfolk Therapeutic Recreation Center this summer, the senior realized that many adults with disabilities lost social contact with their friends during the pandemic.

The Norfolk Therapeutic Center, which serves adults and kids with disabilities, was shut down for nearly a year and has only partially reopened.

So, Hall formed the Super Strikers Soccer League. During July, she and her ODU soccer teammates held weekly clinics for people with disabilities, each followed by a game.

"This was not something that she was required to do, but she went ahead and designed this as a special interactive project," said Catherine Orletsky, a senior recreation supervisor for the city.

"And when they played a game, they had such a blast."

Then on the last day of July, Hall took it one step further. She worked with ODU officials to hold a field day at the L.R. Hill Sports Complex field hockey and lacrosse stadium where dozens of people, including many with autism, got the chance to kick balls into a net, play corn hole, paint, do arts and crafts and throw a football.

Nearly all of the ODU freshman athletes then on campus took part. That was intentional, said Amy Lynch, an athletics academic adviser who helped organize the event.

It was a chance for freshmen to learn early on that beyond playing, practicing hard and excelling in the classroom, part of being an athlete at ODU means giving time to help people in need, Lynch said.

Hall said most of the women's soccer team rallied to help with the Strikers program. Nearly a dozen members of the Strikers attended ODU's opener, a 2-1 overtime victory over East Carolina, and were recognized on the field before the game.

Most people in the program are adults, but the Norfolk Therapeutic Center works with all age groups.

"It touches my heart seeing them do all kinds of things" that some people don't think they can do, Hall said. "They can do almost everything anyone else can do.

"And they're all so happy."

Among the happiest at the L.R. Hill Sports Complex was Kyle Owens, a 27-year-old lifelong ODU fan with autism. He inherited the love of ODU athletics from his father, Gary Owens, who has been a scorekeeper for the Monarch men's basketball team for 45 seasons.

Gary and his wife, Becky, have thrown themselves into helping those with disabilities. More than 22 years ago, they formed the first Challenger Baseball team for Norfolk's Ocean View Little League.

When Kyle turned 22 and was ineligible to play for the regular Challenger team, his parents formed a Senior Challenger team.

"Now that there's no age limit, Kyle can play forever," Becky Owens said.

League play begins in September, and the team has 35 players.

Taking care of their son is a full-time job. When Kyle graduated from high school, Becky retired from the Virginia Beach School System after 30 years to be at home with him.

Becky Owens said that the Strikers and the field day at ODU filled a huge need coming so soon after the easing of pandemic restrictions.

"They lost touch with their friends," she said. "Some of them go to school, but Kyle doesn't go. He missed his friends, the physical activity and the socialization."

Orletsky is an ODU graduate who said she was inspired by Betsy Kennedy, a master lecturer at ODU, to enter the therapeutic recreation field. Hall said Kennedy has also inspired her.

"She has a true passion for the therapeutic recreation field that rubs off on her students and it definitely rubbed off on me," Hall said.

"She also genuinely cares for her students and wants to see them succeed by going out of her way to help them. She's part of the reason I love this field so much because of the passion she has; it made me very eager to learn."

Hall said she knew growing up she wanted to find a profession that would allow her to help people.

"I wanted to be a physical therapist at first," she said. "But then my sister told me about recreational therapy and so I changed majors.

"Being able to help people overcome their barriers and to be able to help them get out and doing things they love to do, that's just awesome."

Orletsky said it was also awesome for the participants.

"The interaction between the soccer players and our participants was priceless," she said. "And I believe it was a true life lesson in disability awareness and empowerment for everyone involved."

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