BANGOR, Maine — From early October until late April, Fridays include a treat for Loren Miller’s foster son, Matthew. It’s his weekly visit to Fields4Kids to take part in the U.S. Youth Soccer Association’s TOPSoccer.
Matthew and his classmates have special needs, and their weekly trips to work on drills and play soccer aid them physically and emotionally.
“Matthew, he loved it,” said Miller. “He really enjoyed [the program].”
TOPSoccer stands for The Outreach Program for Soccer, and it’s “a community-based training and team placement program for young athletes with disabilities, organized by youth soccer association volunteers,” according to the U.S. Youth Soccer Association website. Soccer Maine oversees the program in the state, and two groups are participating.
One is conducted by Blackbear United at Fields4Kids. The other is run by state TOPSoccer director Todd Whitcomb and draws from Greater Portland through Brunswick. His group meets once a week for 12 weeks from late January into late April.
The length of the program is up to the organizer; U.S. Youth Soccer Association suggests 6-8 weeks. Oversmith and Whitcomb both find the interest and need to be greater than that.
“Every year I say it’s going to be eight weeks,” said Whitcomb, “but it always ends up being 12.”
The U.S. Youth Soccer Association has one program that tries to find the best youth soccer players in the country in order to make the U.S. national and Olympic teams as strong as possible.
The parents, teachers and other caretakers of the children who participate in TOPSoccer appear to appreciate the program that helps their kids just as much as their children do.
At Blackbear, Patsy Oversmith oversees the program while MJ Ball handles the instruction.
“I couldn’t speak any higher of them,” said Miller.
Oversmith has about 15 children in her program, while Whitcomb had 45 registered during the winter.
“Typically, we always have between 24 and 30 each week,” said Whitcomb, although it has been as high as 60-65.
“It can be as low as 15 or as high as 20,” said Oversmith of her group, which has been getting together for about three years.
Whitcomb has been running his program since 1999, and he also conducts a one-week camp which will be the second week of July this year in Falmouth. Maine Premier Soccer of Portland gets the T-shirts, coaches and fields.
The primary objective of TOPSoccer is to give the participants an outlet for activity, especially one that asks them to coordinate their activities toward a common goal.
“A lot of them participate in Special Olympic events,” said Oversmith. “This gives them an opportunity to play on a team.”
A donation of uniforms by Soccer Maine helped strengthen that bond.
“It unifies them, makes them feel like they’re part of a team,” said Oversmith. “They don’t get those opportunities [much].”
Sessions, which last 50-60 minutes, start with drills. Participation starts slowly in the early weeks, but builds over the weeks.
“At the beginning of the year, some of them might only be able to go for two or three minutes [before dropping out or needing to rest],” said Whitcomb. “This increases their attention span and also their resiliency.”
Oversmith sees the same thing.
“Some kick the ball a couple of times, then walk around [with their teacher or aide],” she said.
Then come the games, where they put the skills together.
“You’ll hear someone calling, ‘Open,open,’” said Oversmith, and she said they’re familiar with celebrating a goal, too.
“If he scored a goal,” said Miller of Matthew, “he had a victory dance thing.”
By end of the program, most are playing for the entire 50 minutes. That’s a huge step, Whitcomb said.
“These are the kinds of kids who, at the beginning of the year, would climb two flights of stairs and be exhausted,” he said.
There are other things going on while all of the learning and fitting are going on, said Whitcomb.
“It isn’t all soccer, they also socialize,” he said. “I wish they had more opportunities for that [too].”
The soccer also offers an outlet in other ways.
“They can also use it as a coping tool,” said Whitcomb. “Instead of acting out, they [go over to the side and] kick a soccer ball. They realize taking a break is all right.”
Miller saw the benefit to Matthew of the program.
“It was good for his well-being,” said Miller. “He worked very hard. It was excellent for him.”
Other testimonials were included on a large poster at Fields4Kids that was presented at the end of this year’s program.
“Thank you for teaching me soccer,” wrote one child, who also drew a soccer ball on the poster.
“You were an awesome soccer model,” wrote another. “I will miss you and I’ll try those moves you taught us.”
An adult added a note of appreciation as well, writing, “What a gift your work is to us.”
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