Santa Rosa soccer program opens the field to special-needs children

  • Samantha Reckmeyer, 10, right, cheers after receiving a medal from her soccer buddy Deborah Mok during the TOPSoccer program in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Children like Michael Greene usually don't get to play organized sports. Typically they watch as kids free of significant physical or developmental challenges play.

That is not the drill at the indoor soccer venue in Santa Rosa that treats special-needs youngsters to the thrill of the game.

Nobody keeps the score at TOPSoccer sessions at Sports City on Piner Road. Nobody cares about it. This is play for the sake of play, recreation that allows normally excluded boys and girls to get some healthy exercise, hone their coordination and taste the joy of the team experience — and of watching a ball that he or she kicked roll into the net.

"I can't say enough about what this program has done for these kids," grandmother Connie Bjork of Santa Rosa said from the sidelines at Sport City.

Her 4-year-old grandson, Michael Green, lives with disabilities that came with cerebral palsy. She said that at first Michael didn't want to go out onto the fake-grass soccer pitch, but soon he couldn't wait to get to his weekly game.

"The increased mobility since he started this is amazing," Bjork said. She said Michael also bonded with his personal "Buddy."

The TOPSoccer program, funded by private donations and the non-profit GOALS Foundation, seeks to link each player with a volunteer helper. Shannon Rake, the general manager at Sports City and director of its TOPSoccer program, said Buddies who worked the most recent eight-week session were aged 13 to 65.

"They don't have to have any specific qualifications, just a positive attitude," she said.

At present, Sports City hosts two sessions of TOPSoccer per year. One, involving 50 children, concluded just this week and the next is set to start in September.

Rake said the program seeks more volunteers, and also donations from individuals, groups and firms who recognize the value of making soccer available to special-needs kids.

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