U.S. Youth Soccer’s “The Outreach Program for Soccer” (TOPSoccer) is a national program designed to connect youth with intellectual, emotional or physical disabilities with volunteer peer mentors to enjoy the sport of soccer. According to its website, “TOPSoccer provides people with diverse abilities an opportunity to play soccer in a structured environment that is safe, fun, supportive and inclusive.” It states that participating athletes gain social skills, teamwork, perseverance, and confidence. This year, coordinators Cassandra Demarais and Heather Slayton founded a TOPS program for the capitol region of Vermont, based in Barre. There are two other TOPS programs in Vermont, in Essex and Woodstock.
“We just wanted a team our kids with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) could play on, while feeling like members of the team, and have a fun, safe and fulfilling experience. This clinic is meant for kiddos that, because of different challenges they face (autism, cognitive or physical challenges, emotional behavioral disturbance) may not be able to participate or learn fully with their peers on a typically-paced team,” the pair said in a written response. “There was not an alternative team in existence locally that would meet this need.
“Special Olympics and Vermont Adaptive are wonderful programs in Vermont but are often difficult for families in our area to access either because of distance, cost or their child’s schedule. Cassandra initially attempted to dovetail a team with BYSA (Barre Youth Sports Association), but we were put in touch with Ed DeMulder at TOPSoccer and it took off like a rocket from there.”
Middle and high school volunteers from Barre Town Middle School, Harwood Union High School, Spaulding High School, U-32 High School, and St. Johnsbury Academy spend Sunday mornings playing soccer and teaching skills to children and teenagers. Peer instruction and interaction has benefits for the athletes, as well as the volunteers, Demarais said. Currently, TOPS Capital region has 19 athletes and 24 volunteer “buddies,” though the number of participants can vary from week to week. Many athletes live in the central Vermont area and some come from as far away as Danville. The program runs for six weeks, from September 11 through October 16. So far, the group has been able to play outside but is able to use the Barre Town Middle and Elementary School gym on rainy or inclement days.
“Our athletes all play at various skill levels, so the day looks different for everyone,” Demarais and Slayton said. “Some may have scrimmages, while some may continue to work towards being comfortable just getting on the field with a buddy. Whatever works for the individual, and having fun, is the goal here.
“First, we work on social/emotional and communication skills. Soccer skills include toe touches, ball control, dribbling, passing, and shooting.”
The program comes at no charge for families. Yipes! of Central Vermont provided TOPS athletes and volunteers with T-shirts, and Barre Youth Soccer Association and Shannon Sanborn donated soccer balls. Washington County Mental Health Services donated Pugg goals (small, moveable goals). Demarais and Slayton will also provide end-of-season gifts out-of-pocket.
This reporter observed a session on a recent sunny Sunday during which enthusiastic kids ran around energetically, some kicking soccer balls, others playing in goals or throwing balls as teenaged volunteers instructed and played with them. Parents gathered on the bleachers to watch and socialize.
Heather Hicks, Barre Town, said her son “is autistic and I thought it would be a good introduction for him. He loves sports but doesn’t always get directions particularly quickly. This is giving him an opportunity to get familiar with the general idea. He’s been tossing and kicking the ball around. He’s very proud he can throw the ball in the air and then kick it.”
“I like helping autistic kids so that I can help them be more included in these types of things,” seventh-grade buddy Alexis Dodge, Barre Town, said. “It does help me learn about it. I have gotten to meet a lot of new kids and I think one of my favorite things when this little girl was so excited when she got to be my partner and got to kick around the ball with me.”
“I’m doing this because I love soccer and I want to bring that to everybody of all different backgrounds,” said Harwood student and buddy Adam Porterfield, Waterbury. “Working with all these kids is just not an experience that I’ve had in the past. I’ve coached a lot of neurotypical players and this is just such a change. I’m learning a lot. I’m picking up a lot of skills.”