The soccer practice wasn't a first for 5-year-old Tyler Klein, but he did manage to pick up a new skill.

The soccer practice wasn't a first for 5-year-old Tyler Klein, but he did manage to pick up a new skill.

"They taught him to do a throw-in in 30 minutes, and they held his attention," marveled Tyler's mom, Amanda Klein.

Tyler was one of a handful of special-needs children who attended the Westerville Special Olympics' first Young Athletes Program practice Sept. 11. The program was organized by a group of eighth-grade Girl Scouts working on their Silver Award.

A Young Athletes Program long had been a dream of Special Olympics volunteers, and something that was encouraged by the Ohio Special Olympics. But the logistics of finding volunteers and funding for the program put it on hold.

"It gets them involved in sports," said Special Olympics volunteer coordinator Alice Walker said of the benefits of the program. "We would, a lot of times, get athletes at 8 years old who had never participated in sports."

The members of Westerville Girl Scouts Troop 757 -- Alyssa Fesenmyer, Cecilia Hollins, Paige Ream, Zoe Henderson, Elizabeth Kehres, Jenna Johnston and Emma Wuebker -- were determined to work with young special-needs children for their Silver Award project, said troop leader Jessica Hollins, who also is a volunteer with the Special Olympics.

"We talked about different ideas, what do you want to do with the Silver Award, and they said, 'We want to work with special-needs kids.' I was thinking Westerville Special Olympics, and they said, 'No we want to work with the little ones,' " Jessica Hollins said.

Hollins said she knew of Walker's vision of starting a Young Athletes Program, and she thought the project would be a perfect match for the Girl Scouts.

"I said, 'We can probably pull that off, to help her do that,' " Jessica Hollins said.

The Girl Scouts worked with Westerville Special Olympics to craft the program. They wrote a grant application and earned funds help purchase equipment. They trained with adaptive physical-education teachers from the Westerville City School District to help learn how to work with young special-needs children in a sports program.

"They gave us a lot of tips on how we could make it fun and keep (the kids') attention and help them learn," said Girl Scout Alyssa Fesenmyer. "You've got to keep it simple, and you've got to take it slow."

At the Sept. 11 practice, the Girl Scouts taught the young athletes to stop balls with their feet, kick toward the goal and throw balls in.

To the Girl Scouts' delight, athletes who were too shy to join practice at the start were happily kicking, throwing and chasing balls by the end of the 30-minute session.

Over the next few weeks, the Girls Scouts will continue to work with the athletes on developing basic soccer skills. As the soccer season ends, the new Westerville team hopes to challenge a Delaware-based young-athletes group to a soccer game, Walker said.

From there, Special Olympics Young Athletes Program will take on a new sport for each season, with tennis likely being offered next, Walker said.

Klein, a member of the Westerville schools' Special Needs PTA, said the Young Athlete Program offers a great opportunity for the special-needs community.

"I think it fills a need for the community because it lets the kids learn how to be athletes, learn how to be peers and participate in a sport," Klein said. "It fills a niche."

Jessica Hollins said it's been great to see the Girl Scouts take on such a large task and run with it, and the girls plan to see the program through the year as they continue to log volunteer hours for their Silver Award.

"They're a good group of girls, and it's been fun to watch them do all their jobs and pull all the logistics together and work as a team," Hollins said.

Hollins said she's tried to impress upon the girls that they are making a lasting impact on the community by helping to launch the Special Olympics Young Athletes Program.

"Westerville Special Olympics has been around for 22 years, and we're going to continue (the Young Athletes Program), even when they've got their awards," Hollins said. "In 22 years, they'll be able to say, 'I called around and found equipment and helped organize the first soccer team for that program.'"

For more information on the Westerville Special Olympics Young Athletes Program, email