Every weekend, for eight weeks during the spring and fall, students can be found serving as volunteer buddies for young people with disabilities.
Students help out in a unique program called The Outreach Program for Soccer or TOPSoccer that is dedicated to giving everyone with a disability the chance to play and learn the sport. Although it is a national brand, TOPSoccer was started in Manatee County only seven years ago. A parent asked the current program director, Dave Robinson, if there were any clubs or activities in the area for children with disabilities to attend and he found out that there were none. Soon after, Robinson went to a meeting that provided him with information to build the program.
Unlike other TOPSoccer programs across the country that charge a fee for participation, Manatee County provides it free of charge. "We did not want financial restraints to cause lack of participation. The mission really is to allow kids with disabilities to get a chance to be a kid and play a regular sport," says Robinson.
TOPSoccer embraces children with a variety of disabilities like Autism, Asperger syndrome, Down syndrome, ADHD, and those that in wheelchairs. "Some parents think their child's special needs are too much of a limitation, but they should come out and try it. We are able to work with anything from mild to severe disabilities." Robinson remarks.
Each athlete who attends is guaranteed one-on-one attention with a buddy, which puts parents at ease. Athletes and their buddies complete a variety of activities like stretching, practicing with each other, playing in scrimmages; playing duck, duck, goose, and much more.
"We like the idea of a buddy because we do not play soccer and his buddy helps him learn the game," said Banh Huitemah, whose son has been in the program for three years.
Athlete Brooksann Cummings, who suffers from spina bifida, said, "My favorite thing is seeing my buddy and seeing her smile. She is really nice and I like it a lot."
Not only do the athletes look up to their buddies, but the buddies look up to their athletes as well. Junior Lorenzo Tabares decided to volunteer as a buddy after hearing about the opportunity in Key Club.
"I like soccer and I like to help kids that have disabilities. My buddy is the best buddy ever. Her name is Kaylan and she is 14." Tabares states.
Junior Savannah Cummings' sister Brooksann is an athlete in TOPSoccer which prompted her to become a buddy. "My sister and I have something to look forward to in the week. It is a bonding experience," said Cummings.
TOPSoccer provides an environment for all athletes to play their best and learn new skills without being self-conscious if they make a mistake.
"I think TOPSoccer makes the kids feel like they are a part of something, like they are accepted. In public school people stare, but here they are able to be themselves." says Susan French, whose son Chance has been in the program for two years.
Disa McClintock is the mother of Dylan, who has been a part of TOPSoccer for three seasons. She has a simple piece of advice for those curious about someone with disabilities. "Don't stare. Just ask," said McClintock.
Social skills and confidence are often improved with TOPSoccer and the athletes are able to bond with each other. "This is the third year I have played soccer. I have fun with my friend Mathias," said 7-year-old Athlete Brit, who has Autism.
Every athlete is able to learn the meaning of teamwork over the course of each season while also engaging in physical exercise. Parent Becky Bridda is happy she and her husband found the program. "We wanted to find something for our daughter so she could play sports and stay active," said Bridda.
"These are good people. Dave and his staff are wonderful and the buddies are the back bone of this program. I am a very protective father, but when she is out here I know she is taken care of." Lou Bridda says of his 10-year-old daughter Linda.
TOPSoccer creates the best experience possible for those with disabilities to play soccer. In addition to participating in the program, each athlete receives a plaque and pictures at the end of the season, just like every child without disabilities does in their soccer clubs. Each athlete must be at least four years old to participate, but there is no age limit. TOPSoccer is funded entirely by donations from a variety of sponsors. There is a spring and fall season, each lasting eight weeks, with about 40 athletes per season. The upcoming spring season is set to start January 26, 2013. Those interested in signing up, volunteering as a buddy, or donating are encouraged to contact Dave Robinson at his email email@example.com.