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By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Staff
Lily stands next to three girls in red shirts. She smiles and clutches a trophy as parents and children huddle under the Memorial Park gazebo. For the moment, all eyes are on her and her buddies - that is, the red-shirts flanking her. Lily is a participant in Needham’s TOPSoccer program, and this is the seasonal awards ceremony. On this final meeting of the spring session, the athletes and buddies have gathered not just to play, but to reflect and celebrate their fun together.
TOPS - The Outreach Program for Soccer - is a youth soccer training and placement program for athletes with disabilities. The program is focused on bringing soccer to members of the community with physical or mental disabilities. It is an extension of US Youth Soccer’s directive "to foster the physical, mental and emotional growth and development of America's youth through the sport of soccer at all levels of age and competition."
"TOPSoccer is a special-needs-based program that services all kids with special needs, grades kindergarten through eighth grade, and it's part of the Needham Soccer Club,” says Stacey Keenan, Director of Needham TOPSoccer. “It was founded based on the fact that everyone in Needham should be able to play soccer, regardless of their needs.”
Just minutes before the group gathered under the gazebo, the athletes and buddies, oblivious to the pouring rain, were out on the soccer field together. Some took shots on a goal. Others were content simply to hold or throw a ball. Some ran through an obstacle course. Others just ran. Regardless of what they did, the friendships they forged transcended the soccer field.
"It's wonderful seeing some of the bonds [the buddies] form with these kids. They realize how much joy they're bringing to them by just being with them and sharing with them,” commented Kimberly Christie, Secretary of the Needham Soccer Club.
"We're using soccer as a reason for them to participate in a group sport,” added Lee Popper, Needham Soccer Club board member. “They all do it in a different way."
"Soccer's the reason to come together, and they find their own enjoyment," Christie affirmed.
Count parents, in addition to the athletes, buddies and NSC members, among those who have fallen for the TOPSoccer program.
"We participate in so many different special needs recreational programs,” said Mira Tamir Spiegel, “and none of them are like this in terms of just the pure, positive nature and the enthusiasm that the volunteers and organizers have."
"How well organized it is makes a big difference,” offered Ali Premo. “It's structured enough so that if they want to learn about the game of soccer, then can. If they want to run around and just get some fresh air, they want to be social, they can. It's flexible, yet organized enough that it's meaningful for each kid."
"I think what this does is bring these kids into this soccer community,” Mira said. “All these kids are soccer kids. That's an opportunity that most of these kids wouldn't have, and now they're a part of it."
Back under the gazebo, all eyes are still on Lily as one of her buddies searches for the words to describe their time together. “Lily has a lot of energy and she always knew how to make us laugh,” she says before buddy Ellie Keenan rounds it off with her own comment:
“And she gives the best hugs.”