Heywood Broun, an American sportswriter, once said, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”
If anyone were to doubt the truth of Broun’s words all they need to do is spend an hour on a Saturday afternoon at the Sedalia Community Center.
For the past three Saturdays, 45 athletes and volunteers have proven what it means to be a person of character as part of the Sedalia TOPSoccer Program.
The program began as an idea two years ago when Jason Kindle and Sarah Grupe spoke with Amanda Blackburn, Paul Klover Soccer Association board president, about starting a soccer program for individuals with special needs.
The three spoke and searched for a way to allow these individuals to have a way to meet the needs of the area children who have either physical or mental disabilities.
“It really started a few years ago when I was watching a program on ESPN about a Pop Warner football program a few years ago about athletes with disabilities in their youth program,” Grupe said. “I thought to myself it could be done with any sport but we just needed to find a way.”
Grupe and Kindle are both physical therapists who work with children with physical limitations on a daily basis.
Both also share a love of soccer.
“When Jason and Sarah came to me they were so positive about wanting to work with these students,” Blackburn said. “They saw a need and truly wanted to find a way to make this dream become a reality for everyone involved.
“Soccer is a sport for everyone,” Blackburn added. “The program is designed to improve the overall fitness of the child but it is also a program that helps to build their self-esteem and social skills as well.”
TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer) is part of a nationwide network of players in the U.S. Youth Soccer program.
The program is open to children of all ages. The youngest participant in Sedalia is 5 and the oldest is 15.
“From what we have been told this is the first program of its kind other than the Special Olympics in Sedalia for special needs athletes,” Kindle said. “These kids have such really good hearts and they really want to play.
“It truly is just amazing to be a part of this and it’s a win-win for everyone involved,” Kindle added.
The athletes are not the only winners in the program.
Every Saturday in addition to the 12 to 15 players, there are 30 or more volunteers who are there to be a mentor and coach to the athletes.
“We have two coaches for each athlete,” Blackburn said. “The program is both individual-based where they learn basic skills but it is also group-based where they get to scrimmage.
“The two to one ratio is a good fit because they are able to work with them in the small group settings, helping them on their individual skills. They are also out there during the scrimmage making sure everyone is alright when they play.”
The volunteers come from all stations in life; many are high school soccer players from the area and some are parents of the special needs students.
Others are businessmen and community leaders who simply want to volunteer and be a part of the program.
Tristen Staus, a senior at Smithton High School, is one of the volunteers in the program.
Staus, an all-conference, all district soccer player for Smithton, knows firsthand the importance of the game to an individual.
“I was devastated last year when I tore my ACL during a soccer game,” Staus said by phone Friday. “The injury kept me from playing my senior year so I know how much it means to want to play soccer and not be able to.
“I wanted to volunteer for this because I enjoy teaching the kids a game that I love so much and that means so much to me,” Staus added. “Soccer has helped me through a lot of difficult times and so I wanted to help these kids because maybe the game can do the same for them.”
“I think for the volunteers, especially the teenagers, this program means just as much to them as it does to the players they work with,” Grupe said. “I know it does for my sons.
“The youth coaches can’t wait to come back and help,” she added. “There are a lot of smiles on their faces after the hour has passed.”
Grupe said the volunteers learn the lessons of empathy and giving back and that those carry over to the athletes.
After a series of warm-up exercises including stretching and jogging, the players are paired up with their coaches for drills and skill sets.
Then the scrimmage begins.
For 20 minutes, the athletes and their coaches all take to the field.
Only the special needs athletes play the game; the coaches run beside them and offer encouragement and support and a helping hand when needed, but the game is for the youth.
“We scrimmage, but it’s not competitive,” Blackburn said. “They want to play but it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about the experience and giving them the chance to play.”
All three adults commented that so often people only look in terms of the limitations placed upon these athletes.
“It shouldn’t be about what they can’t do,” Grupe said. “It’s about what they can.
“Everyone involved in the program believes that,” she added. “If you give them an expectation and a goal they are going to do all they can to achieve that.”
This session of TOPSoccer was a pilot for Paul Klover but there are already plans to continue TOPSoccer this fall and beyond.
“Based on all of the success we have seen we are hoping to have a session this fall that coincides with our Paul Klover League,” Blackburn said. “This session we kept small, wanting to see how it would all play out, but based on the positive experience that this was, we are going to open the program up to all area special needs athletes.
“We know we have a few things to work on but we are moving forward and we all think that we can only get better,” she added. “It has been an amazing experience for all of us, especially the kids and that is who this is all about.”
Individuals with questions or who are interested in volunteering for the TOPSoccer Program can contact Blackburn at [email protected]
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484