topsoccer5Every Wednesday night, the playing fields of Nettles Park are filled with energetic, laughing kids and coaches for a night of soccer. The TOPSoccer program enables 35 to 40 children ages four to 18 years old with disabilities to participate in organized sports for an evening of fun and exercise.

Clemson University students from across all majors, ranging from special education to engineering, volunteer their time each week to serve as coaches and buddies for these young athletes. Buddies are assigned one-on-one with a young athlete who they mentor throughout the season. This allows individualized attention throughout the night, and for a chance to build a strong personal bond throughout the duration of the program. One mother at a recent practice reinforced the purpose of a program like TOPSoccer.

“This program gives my son something to look forward to each week,” she said. “He loves soccer and loves coming to see his buddies.”

The practices are organized and run by coaches, who are primarily students from Clemson’s Athletic Leadership program. Practices begin with a warm-up lap around the field, followed by group stretching activities. Players then rotate through a series of four skill stations ranging from passing to shooting, followed by a scrimmage session. The scrimmage is always the athletes’ favorite part of the evening, according to the children.

TOPSoccer affords children with disabilities an opportunity to participate in an organized sport, something most people without disabilities too often take for granted. Another unique aspect of the program is its association with ClemsonLIFE, a post-secondary education program for young adults with intellectual disabilities that is housed in Clemson’s College of Education. ClemsonLIFE students are paired with a buddy to help mentor these young athletes. Volunteering provides ClemsonLIFE students the opportunity take on a leadership role and give back to the community by helping others.

The TOPsoccer program was started by Dr. Joe Ryan, founder and executive director of ClemsonLIFE, and is supervised by several other professors including Deborah Cadorette from Athletic Leadership and Drs. Janie Hodge and Antonis Katsiyannis from the special education department. They run a similar program called Challenger Baseball each spring.

Dr. Ryan claims the program is only made possible by the 60-plus Clemson students who volunteer their time serving as buddies and coaches. He said Head Coach Katie Parker and Volunteer Coordinators Maddie Butzer and Paige Doran make everything possible.

“I’ve heard countless times from our volunteers that Wednesday is their favorite night of the week, because they get to work with these children,” Ryan said. “and I know the kids love it, because of the stories our parents share, such as the one boy who slept with his trophy every night for several weeks until his mother made him stop.”

For more information about Top Soccer or Challenger Baseball please visit the TOPSoccer website.