TOPSoccer registration open for children with disabilities

River Soccer Club is leveling the playing field this fall by hosting the TOPSoccer program, designed for young athletes with disabilities. Now in its eighth year, The Outreach Program for Soccer (TOPSoccer) offers an opportunity to learn and play soccer for any boy or girl, ages 4 to 19, who has special needs, whether physical or cognitive.

The outdoor soccer program runs for eight weeks, beginning Saturday, Sept. 8, at noon, for one-hour sessions. TOPSoccer focuses on having fun and enabling kids with disabilities to become valued and successful members of the River Soccer Club family, as taught by their peers.

Participants will each have a buddy from the local middle- and high-schools who volunteers to join them in the program. Many of these students are soccer players who give one-on-one support and instruction. Buddies play with the same participants each week, so familiarity can lead to fun and friendship.

“It’s a wonderful thing that has rewarded us since we started the program — the relationship between the buddies and the players,” said Sandie Gerken, program manager. “It’s a great experience, not just for the kids with special needs, but for the buddies that participate. They become friends and realize they’re just kids like everybody else.”

The camp is flexible, to accommodate players’ needs, and lets them try whatever they’re comfortable doing. Some children may participate in regular games, while others choose to practice drills with their buddy. In some cases, it’s enough for a child to interact with the ball and enjoy the soccer field atmosphere.

“We try to teach them some soccer skills and some athletic skills,” said Gerken. “They all have a great time and have a team they can belong to, whether they play a [full] game or not.”

Parents are welcome to “sit on the sidelines and be proud,” watching their children be part of the soccer team,” Gerken said. After the first session, many campers soon enjoy the independent activity, playing with their friends and their buddy.

“The club is successful because relationships develop from both sides,” said Gerken, who has a grandchild with Down syndrome. “You do not see the disability. You just see the kid.”

Anyone unable to participate in a regular competitive soccer program is also welcome to just watch. Kids may check out the action from the sidelines and then want to participate. Gerken said TOPSoccer not only helps with balance or thinking skills, but it also helps participants to blossom.

“They all feel really good at the end of the hour,” she said, describing the kids’ tradition of running though the triumphal arch at the end of each session.

The registration fee costs $20 for eight weeks, although a need-based scholarship program is available. Participants will receive a T-shirt and soccer ball. Gerken said she also hopes to give full uniforms to participants this year, though a Delaware Youth Soccer Association Grant.

Gerken encouraged anyone who has or knows a child who would benefit from the program to register or learn more by contacting the TOPSoccer program coordinators at (302) 732-6835 or visiting River Soccer Club is located in Roxana, at 32221 Gum Road, Frankford.