TOPsoccer in Hobe Sound gives more than it receives

Soccer games on Friday evenings at the South County Ball Park during May and June look like any other Hobe Sound youth soccer match. At first.

The young athletes—some wearing red shirts, some wearing gray—run in tandem toward the goal, charging after an elusive soccer ball. Coaches, parents and scores of siblings cheer from the sidelines, while referees move deftly on the field.

Shortly, however, hints begin to emerge that something different happens here between the netted goals. Oh, there’s definitely a heated contest going on between two teams on the field all right, but some of the players in red shirts hobble slowly, instead of flat-out run. Others seem suddenly confused and take off in another direction, only to be ushered back into the stream of play by an older athlete wearing a gray shirt.

This is The Outreach Program of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, more commonly known as TOPsoccer, an all-volunteer program designed for children with special needs, incorporating a broad range of developmental challenges. The “real” soccer players wear red shirts; their volunteer “buddies” wear gray.

“Many of these children are autistic, or have cerebral palsy, or some other condition, but when they are here, they get a chance to leave those behind,” says Tony Sementelli, a Hobe Sound Youth Soccer Association coach and a father. “Here, they get to be just soccer players having a lot of fun.”

Few of the players seem to be the same age chronologically, yet they play together as if no years separate them. They all wear sweat-shined, intense faces that reveal determination and grit during competition, interspersed with unfettered grins.

“In TOPSoccer we’ve found an oasis away from the often hyper-competitive youth sports environment; where our kids can learn the game at their own pace, where their mistakes and challenges are tolerated, and where they can learn love and tolerance for kids who may be more challenged than they are,” says Alan Drake of Hobe Sound, whose two children, Laura and Nicholas, are students at SeaWind Elementary School and have participated in TOPsoccer for two years.

“It provides a dimension to life that our kids would not otherwise experience,” he adds, “the competitiveness, teamwork and physical excitement that is unique to youth sports.”

As parents arrive, they greet each other warmly as their children run off either with their buddy or with new friends. The chatter is immediate, comfortable. “Families with differently abled children often feel isolated, out of the mainstream of parenting,” Alan says. “TOPSoccer is one place where they can be with other parents who understand their struggles and who can celebrate the little victories that parents of mainstream kids wouldn’t even notice.”

Respecting the athletes’ needs

In opposite corners of the soccer field, groups of other red-shirted athletes are playing according to their age, size, physical skill and cognitive ability. The youngest ones are in the “micro” group for age six and younger. Not all groups are playing a soccer game, though. Some just kick a ball around, or play another game, or just stand in the middle of the field, surrounded by a cacophony of laughter and yells, seemingly alone, yet part of the whole.

“In cases like that,” nodding his head toward the boy standing alone, Sementelli says, “it’s important that we recognize that what he needs is respect for what he wants, so we leave him alone.” Volunteers keep watch, but remain out of his space. “Some days, though, it’s different, and he wants to play. We just accommodate his needs, whatever they are at the time.”

The coaches, all of whom also are Youth Soccer Association coaches, begin the eight-week TOPsoccer schedule immediately after the regular season ends at the end of April. They meet from 6pm to around 8pm every Friday night.

“All the coaches really look forward to the start of TOPsoccer,” Sementelli says. “We can hardly wait for Friday nights, but everyone who’s involved feels that way.” Players, parents and buddies all seem to agree with him, spreading the word, attracting new players from throughout the county. In only in its second season, the program has swelled to serve nearly four dozen athletes.

Jacob Winterlater, a six-year-old diagnosed with autism and ADHD, came to Hobe Sound from Jensen Beach this season to play soccer for the first time.

“He’s a high-functioning child,” says his mother, Kristen Winterlater. “He’s very hyper, so he needs a lot of understanding and direction from his coaches. If he was put in regular soccer, he’d be the one who was in trouble all the time.”

She said that Jacob had never been interested in sports, but now he loves soccer, which she attributes to the TOPsoccer training method that provides a positive experience for a child, regardless of the type of disability. Jacob’s coaches have suggested that perhaps he’s ready to play in a standard, slightly more competitive youth league next year.

“I don’t know, though. We’re thinking about that,” Kristen says, “but I don’t know…my husband (Doug) and I really like the one-on-one attention he gets now. The coaches are great, and so are the buddies.”

Jacob’s buddy, Zack, is 13 and goes to the field early on Friday nights. “He’s always early,” she says, “and he’s just chomping at the bit for Jacob to get there. We really like that about Zack.”

Buddies make the difference

The buddies are key to the program’s success according to Sementelli, who explains that for the 47 athletes enrolled, the program has 14 adult volunteers and from 60 to 70 buddies. “It’s important that there’s consistency for the athletes, that they have the same buddy from week to week and, if possible, from year to year,” he adds. “It’s also just as important that the athlete and the buddy are a good match, and that there’s always a buddy on hand for each athlete.”

Last year was the first time ever that Clayton Pelkey, 12, the son of Reilly and Tad Pelkey of Hobe Sound, had ever participated in any sport. His autism has affected both his fine and gross motor skills, which means he gets excluded from any type of sports activity, says his mother. At TOPsoccer, it makes no difference.

“I knew he had a great time and got to be a regular kid for a change when he ran off the field at the end of the game and yelled ‘COWABUNGA! When do we do this again?’,” Reilly says. “He jumped into my husband’s arms with a smile that wouldn’t quit…as he high-fived everyone and thanked them for the evening.”

His parents see continued growth this year, in part because Clayton was “in the groove” from the first day this season. “He has participated more, run the field, and feels as though it is his soccer team just like typical kids do,” his mother says. “We all enjoy the evening. It is something we look forward to each week. He also sees his classmates from Anderson Middle School. It gives them social opportunities that under normal circumstances, they don’t have.”

Last week, Clayton was goalkeeper, “and he did the Macarena dance while in there,” Reilly adds. “That would never fly in a regular program, but he had a blast and was still able to stop some balls.”

This year, Clayton’s sister, Shelby, only a year older than her brother, is volunteering as a buddy for a TOPsoccer athlete, and she recruited several of her school friends to join her as well.

Calling TOPsoccer an “environment of love, learning, and achievement,” Alan Drake describes TOPsoccer as an all-around positive experience for his children, as well as an opportunity “for mainstream kids to learn to relate to children with challenges, and I can imagine that it broadens them as soccer players to be able to teach kids who have extra difficulties.”

The young buddies may be unaware that such a thing is taking place within themselves, but those who volunteer all agree that they’re having a great time. TOPsoccer buddy Christine Barker, a member of the South Fork High School girls soccer team, says that she didn’t really know what to expect when she first volunteered, a sentiment shared by her fellow teammates who also are TOPsoccer buddies.

“I fell in love in my little guy,” she says. “I just am in love with him; I don’t know what else to say.”

South Fork soccer player Lindsay Merritt recalled that her little athlete started last year wanting to play nothing but “Duck, Duck, Goose,” so that’s what they played, week after week. This season, however, he’s playing soccer, running the field, chasing after the ball. He’s become a genuine team player.

“They all are learning to play soccer,” Christine adds. “They just learn in slower steps than other kids.”

Christine’s teammates agree that TOPsoccer has become their favorite thing to do on Friday nights—not something you’d expect a teenager to admit—and that they don’t want the season to end.

“Coming here gives me such a good feeling,” says fellow teammate and buddy Grace Altman in a barely audible voice, pausing for a few moments to search for her words and, ultimately, just shaking her head in silence. “I can’t even explain it,” she says, finally. “It’s just so much fun.”

Like to volunteer?
Proficiency in soccer is not a requirement to volunteer with TOPsoccer, says Volunteer Coordinator Kathy Onus. “We’re always needing more volunteers.” For more information, contact her at [email protected] or call Tony Sementelli at 772.285.9606.