Why this US soccer program is a hit with children with disabilities

Jack’s (centre) progression through soccer highlights the power of inclusive sports. Photo: Instagram/The Buffalo News

Chris and Lindsay Lubick’s son Jack is a nine-year-old with an extreme form of autism. He has not yet learned to speak, and wears earplugs to quiet sensory overload.

Despite these daily challenges, it’s evident to his parents that Jack enjoys soccer. It’s what he wants to do when he attends his sister’s games for the Clarence Soccer Club (CSC) in New York, the United States.

“He’s happy as all hell,” Chris Lubick said. “He loves to kick a soccer ball around.”

The Lubicks spent the last few weeks preparing to send Jack to TopSoccer, a national programme for kids with special needs that combines learning the sport with fun.

The first session of TopSoccer began at Epic Sports and Fun Center in Lancaster, New York and runs every Saturday through March. It is intended for children aged between five and 21 with physical or mental challenges.

All 30 spots in the first session are filled, but there is potential for the programme to grow for future sessions, said CSC executive director Doug Curella Jr.

TopSoccer’s inclusive approach transforms lives, one kick at a time. Photo: Instagram/Clarence Soccer ClubTopSoccer’s inclusive approach transforms lives, one kick at a time. Photo: Instagram/Clarence Soccer Club

Participants and volunteers to help lead the programme are not limited to members of club. Curella Jr said Meg Bellomo, a CSC youth soccer coach with a background teaching special education, will spearhead the sessions, along with New York West Youth Soccer’s Vanessa Uhteg and CSC’s Frank Butcher.

Given her background, Bellomo said launching something like TopSoccer has long been one of her goals.

“For special education families – we needed something for them,” she said.

Curella and Bellomo said one of their soccer club’s greatest strengths is its many eager volunteers – traditionally a hurdle in sustaining special needs programmes – to provide one-on- one attention through a buddy system for anyone who participates.

No child with special needs is left alone.

“It’s an opportunity for kids to feel included, to feel part of a team and to connect with peers,” Bellomo said.

“They can take risks, try new things and have their unique talents shine through.”

The activities of a session, especially in the beginning, will be focused on making the participants as comfortable as possible, Bellomo said.

Kids may be split up into groups to match their ages or physical capabilities. Following a warm-up period, get-to-know-you activities, fun mini-games and simple drills will help kids adjust to what might be a scary, unfamiliar environment.

They will gradually move to more standard soccer games as they grow more confident.

Sustaining such a volunteer-driven effort is difficult because of a dearth of resources and sheer volume of helpers needed, Curella said.

Clarence Soccer Club operates as a not-for-profit organisation, so it was meaningful when Epic stepped forward to donate field time for the first session. Clarence has access to the outdoor, 12-field Clarence Soccer Center, which could be useful should the programme run through the summer.More volunteers

Cameron Steer, a soccer player with autism, has for the last two years served as voluntary director at TopSoccer Rochester, which along with New York towns like Buffalo, Binghamton and Fredonia, falls under the purview of New York West Youth Soccer.

“People like Vanessa, who do it out of the goodness of their heart, are a huge triumph and something we need to find more of,” he said in a message.

“It gives the programme a bit more stability and longevity that way,” said the former student of Medaille College in Buffalo, New York.

He said hurdles to the programme could be logistical and relational.

Finding a venue with available field time was an initial challenge in Rochester, and once a venue was determined, establishing a suitable time to meet participants’ schedules limited attendance.

There’s also an adjustment period for many coaches and buddies, Steer said.

“I think the hardest part about getting the programme going is getting to know and understand the kids, what they’re into, what they’re willing to do and how to best support them to achieve that, and enjoy the time and space out of the house,” Steer said.

In his experience, sometimes that can mean kids may not even touch a soccer ball. They might instead play with a Rubik’s Cube or simply run around to release energy.

“The most important element of TopSoccer is giving children a safe, judgment-free space where they can be themselves,” Steer said.Buddies are meaningful

The social development, self-confidence and risk-taking aspects for kids with mental and physical challenges are the crown jewels of the programme. But Chris Lubick, an eager advocate for children with special needs, said TopSoccer is also an inclusive opportunity for “neurotypical” buddies who help.

“The benefit goes both ways,” Lubick said. “Whether it’s (cerebral palsy) or Tourette’s, the volunteers will understand it for what it is.”

Opportunity extends to parents, too, who are constantly learning about their child’s needs and finding the best ways to love them.

“Parents are growing up as much as the kids are in special ed situations,” Lubick said.

For parents fearing a social meltdown or wondering how their kids might respond to physical activity, they’ll have the assurance of one-on-one attention, he said.

And they likely won’t be far away themselves should their help be requested.

“Almost all parents will be on their tippy toes,” he said, “waiting to run in and help.” – The Buffalo News/Tribune News Service

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