Special Kids Have a Ball in This League

October 11, 2018

Volunteer Mike Sexton works with special-needs kids and staff at the TOPS Soccer camp in Chelmsford. SUN/David H. Brow Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

CHELMSFORD -- On one side of the field by South Row Elementary School, groups of kids of all ages played crab soccer or chased after everyone’s favorite 8-foot soccer ball.

On the other side, volunteers and their young buddies played one-on-one, kicking regular soccer balls or bouncing off of oversized ones. In the back, other kids worked on perfecting their kicks or played small competitive games.

For many of them, it’s the most fun semi-organized sport they’ve encountered.

It’s The Outreach Program for Soccer, or TOPS, offered by the Chelmsford Youth Soccer Association to give disabled and special-needs kids an opportunity to play soccer and other fun, related games.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Abby Berry, who organized and runs the program.

A special-education teacher at the Chelmsford Integrated Preschool, or CHIPS, who had already been involved with Chelmsford Youth Soccer, Berry was a natural fit to take on TOPS in 2017, its inaugural year in town.

This year, the program has 38 players and 48 volunteers -- more than a 50 percent increase in both from last year, largely due to word-of-mouth, she said.

Berry said she’s consistently been amazed by the support the program has received, both in the people who become involved and the Kurt D. Kelly Memorial Foundation’s sponsorship of all of its equipment.

Based on the US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer program, TOPS allows kids with disabilities to be active -- and gives their parents, who are normally helping them, a chance to view from the sidelines, Berry said.

It runs for eight Sunday afternoons in September and October, starting about the same time as the regular soccer season, she said. The participants are mostly from Chelmsford, but kids from all towns who are ages 3 to 22 are welcome, Berry said.

Registration is $30 to cover program T-shirts and insurance in case of injuries, and scholarships are available for families that can’t afford the fee, she said.

Most of the volunteers are students, some as young as 10 years old, and they get partnered with special-needs participants to work with them one-on-one, Berry said.

This year, she said TOPS also added an option for kids who don’t need that level of support but still struggle with being on a team, such as those with high-functioning autism and significant attention deficit.

“To be on a team, you’ve got to be able to wait your turn, follow the group plan, and pay attention to what’s going on,” Berry said. “For some of these kids, that doesn’t work, and what happens quickly is nobody passes them the ball anymore. They start to feel that it’s not a positive experience, and when they get to 10 or 12 years old, they start saying to their parents, ‘I don’t want to go.’”

For now, these kids play two-on-two or three-on-three games, but Berry hopes to continue to grow the program to allow groups of 15 or 20 like-minded kids to play.

Jessica Hussey, 15, said her mom put her into a lot of other sports she didn’t like, including baseball and basketball.

“Now there’s soccer, I’m rocking it,” the Chelmsford High School sophomore said with a big smile.

Heather Sexton said her daughter, Anna, 6, who has Down syndrome, was a student at CHIPS last year when Berry floated the idea of starting a special-needs soccer program. Their family was thrilled at the prospect -- all of them are now involved.

Heather’s husband, Michael Sexton, coaches the kids in group activities.

“We do plenty of drills and skills along the way, but we also have a lot of fun,” he said.

Sons Colin, 12, and Ryan, 10, are volunteers. Ryan has been buddies with the same 4-year-old boy both years.

“Every time he leaves, he gives me a big hug,” Ryan said. “It just feels good to help.”

And Anna? She loves dribbling and playing with the oversized silver soccer ball.

“We enjoy seeing her participate in an athletic activity and be successful at it at her own level,” Heather Sexton said.

Chelmsford High senior and soccer player Jack Fox, 17, said he learned of TOPS last year when he was looking for a way to give back to the soccer program in the community. He built a storage shed for TOPS equipment for his Eagle Scout project, and was inspired to come back this year as a volunteer.

“I think it’s amazing,” he said. “Everyone here is learning to play soccer and having so much fun at the same time. I love it.”

As they kicked around a ball, Fox’s buddy, Colin Krochune, 12, calculated they last played together “168 hours ago.”

“Colin is amazing at math and has a great memory, so we’ve been doing a bunch of multiplication problems and talking about days and time,” Fox said.

Karen King said her son Odin, 7, who is developmentally delayed and nonverbal, is always excited to come to TOPS. She said he has enjoyed playing with his special-needs peers and his volunteer, Brandon Polley, 15, is “incredibly patient” with him.

“Sometimes I think Odin is Brandon’s coach, because Odin has his own agenda,” King said.

“He goes his own way and it’s hard to persuade him out of it,” Polley said with a laugh.

The Chelmsford High sophomore said he came back for a second year because he enjoys working with the kids and his fellow volunteers.

For more information on TOPS, visit chelmsfordyouthsoccer.com .

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