When Marisa Santella's son Nico was diagnosed with autism at age 3, she thought he would never play sports.
"We are sports people," Santella said with a smile.
Nico's two older brothers have all played sports, she explained. But with Nico, it always has been difficult to bring him to organized activities.
"He gets overstimulated and can get upset," his mother said.
Finally, Santella got tired of seeing Nico, now 11, sit on the sidelines. So, along with the board of the First Hernando Youth Soccer Club, she decided to do something about it.
For the first time, the organization is offering TOPSoccer, a program for children with mental and physical challenges. During the free nine-week season, which began earlier this spring, each player is paired with a buddy, and they get to get out on the field and play soccer. Santella helped organize the program.
She expected 10 children to participate, but now 40 kids, and about 50 buddies, have enrolled. Each week, more parents are calling and showing up.
"This is just awesome, for the parents, kids and volunteers," said Erin Begeny, a board member of the First Hernando Youth Soccer Club.
The soccer organization offers recreational and competitive soccer for children ages 4 and up, as well as adult leagues. This year, the group is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
The first hour of TOPSoccer is dedicated to drills, skills and stretching. After that, participants are broken up into teams to scrimmage. Kids are sorted by age and ability.
"We don't use the word 'disability' here; the kids hear that word too much," said Santella.
"It's an alphabet soup of diagnoses — PDD, autism spectrum, CP, sensory integration disorder — but today they are just kids," said Rhonda Coleman, mom to 6-year-old Jimmy. "Jimmy is a runner. They call it 'elopement,' and I call it a flight risk," said Coleman. "But he's safe out on the field with his buddy, and I can just watch and enjoy the day."
Cat Fonseco, mother of 6-year-old twins Emily and Nathan, agrees. "This is such a healthy outlet for their energy," said Fonseco, who is also a physical education teacher at Deltona Elementary School.
"I have been involved in sports my whole life and really wanted this for them, but wasn't sure it was a possibility," Fonseco said.
Emily has Asperger's syndrome and anxiety disorder; Nathan has multiple disabilities.
On a recent Saturday, Emily scored a goal. Everyone on the sidelines screamed and cheered.
"This is great for the kids, but a great benefit for the buddies as well," said Phil Bennett, director of coaching for the soccer club.
Each player is paired with a volunteer buddy, most of whom are teenagers who play soccer during the fall season.
Bennett's son Harry, 15, is a buddy to an 8-year-old boy named Zachary. The two are "joined at the hip," said Zack's dad, John Luallen.
Harry holds Zack's hand and helps him learn to dribble the ball through cones. When he misses a kick, Harry gives a disappointed Zack a hug.
"This is something ... you can't come and watch and not get a little moved," said Begeny.
TOPSoccer is an acronym for The Outreach Program for Soccer and is part of the U.S. Youth Soccer program. Started in the late 1990s, it is designed to help "all children enjoy the benefits and fun of soccer," explained Rob Martella, director of operations for the national organization, which oversees and supports local youth sports league. There are TOPSoccer programs in nearly every state, Martella said.
Santella is hoping the Hernando program will continue to grow. She wants to hold a fall season and maybe a daylong event where the kids get together, and the parents can connect, too.
"These children get an opportunity to be a part of something — something they would ordinarily be excluded from," she said. "You see lots and lots of smiles out there."