NEW PORT RICHEY
Whether turning an autistic child into a striker, or a learning-disabled kid into a midfielder, West Pasco Futbol Club is conquering new ground with its TOPSoccer program.
The most popular youth sport in America is soccer but it has lacked a presence of leagues for children with special needs in the Pasco area.
TOPS or The Outreach Program for Soccer was created by US Youth Soccer and is popping up around the country with increasing frequency.
"The idea came up to start the program, and so I decided to do some research and talk to clubs in other states that had done it … ," West Pasco FC board president Bert Barnes said. "I feel that the community needs something like this and it's good for West Pasco FC."
Barnes was uncertain about the kind of turnout the TOPS program would get, but after the first session he was pleased with the number of kids who showed up.
"We only had eight or nine kids sign up, but more than that showed up for the first day," Barnes said. "It's important to get these kids out here and keep them active. We've got kids that are all on different levels and we're doing our best to try and facilitate them and have the kids enjoy themselves and have fun. If they learn something about soccer, then that is good, too."
Some kids heard about the program through their involvement with the Special Olympics. Kerri Dunning heard through her son, Brian's, Special Olympics coaches that the TOPS program was coming to Pasco and decided immediately to get her 16-year-old involved.
"Things like this are important for him," Dunning said. "He loves sports and he loves people. Most autistic people don't like being around other people, but not Brian, so this is a good way to let him do what he likes to do."
For Dunning, the opportunity to see her son successful in sports and flourish around other kids is something to cherish.
"He's been doing things like baseball and bowling since he was little," Dunning said. "I take pride in anytime he receives awards or achieves something he couldn't do before. It makes him happy, and if he's happy, I'm happy."
Players are of different skill levels. For some, such as 13-year-old Cody Gauvin, the TOPS sessions offer an opportunity to play with other kids who can play on his level.
"I play at my school a lot, but this is awesome," Cody said. "I just like getting the ball and the opportunity to score goals. Playing out here is another chance to do that."
Cody and others, like Brian Dunning, are able to have a more structured practice while younger kids are often given a ball and allowed to explore what they can do.
"For some of these kids this is their first introduction to organized sports," Barnes said. "We're just hoping that this can help them develop some confidence and improve their fitness, but the most important thing is to just get them out here to have a good time."
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