The Teaneck branch of TOPSoccer, a community-based program that provides children with special needs the opportunity to learn the game of soccer in a safe and nurturing environment, kicked off its seventh year of sessions with its winter program earlier in January. Led by Dr. Jim Dunleavy, Vivian Gaits and Dr. Ken Hoffman, the program meets once a week on Sundays and offers an assortment of lessons and drills for the players. Families are encouraged to attend the 60-75-minute sessions and watch as their child learns and develops different techniques and skills. Emphasizing development, participation and fun, the sessions are run out of Benjamin Franklin Middle School and function using a buddy system that pairs at least one trained volunteer with each of the players.
TOPSoccer operates around the goal of providing the joy of learning and playing soccer to any child with a mental or physical disability. Its umbrella covers a wide spectrum of disabilities, including, but not limited to, children with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Open to children ages 5 to 19, the program prides itself on teaching its players, in addition to soccer, social skills, communication and taking pride in one’s abilities. For Gaits, it’s those aspects that drew her and her husband, Ken Hoffman, with Jim Dunleavy to start this program in Teaneck. Speaking with The Jewish Link, Dr. Hoffman elaborated on his original hopes for the program, and what TOPSoccer means to him.
“Soccer is a wonderful sport that everyone should be able to enjoy,” Dr. Hoffman shared. “A while back my wife and I noticed that around town there wasn’t really any soccer programs specifically for children with special needs. We wanted to do something about that. For me, TOPSoccer is this opportunity to give back to our community, to do something that will really make a difference in these kids’ lives. Since starting it we’ve had a lot of success with our players, and they have a blast learning. It’s something we take a lot of pride in being a part of.”
For Gaits, having been with the Teaneck TOPSoccer program since its inception and having seen so many different players come and go over the years, she feels it’s very important for children with special needs to have a league of their own. As she explains it, it gives the children a chance to learn the necessary skills they will need for when they eventually transition into regular leagues.
“The goal of TOPSoccer is to eventually integrate our players into the regular soccer leagues,” Gaits explained. “There are some kids who just need a little more support before they can do that, and that’s what we aim to provide. This is an opportunity for them to learn some skills, have some fun and do something athletic as well. We try to make our lessons as accessible and individualized as possible to fit each of our players’ different needs. We want everyone to feel welcome and involved.”
The TOPSoccer buddy system ensures players are having fun and getting involved. Tara Dunleavy, the daughter of Jim Dunleavy, has been one of TOPSoccer’s buddies since the beginning, and speaking with The Jewish Link she talked about her time working with the program.
“It’s the greatest program I’ve ever been a part of,” Tara said. “I’m hoping to become a preschool teacher in the future, and I’ve learned so many lessons myself from being here. Patience is a big one that I think I will take the most moving forward. I’ve been involved with this program for so long that it feels like my home.”
Teaneck’s branch of TOPSoccer is part of the Teaneck Junior Soccer League (TJSL), which runs a number of different soccer programs throughout Teaneck, including REC Soccer and FC Teaneck. In addition to the winter program, TOPSoccer also has another it runs in the fall, which takes place from mid-September through October on Lancer’s Field in Votee Park. If you would like to register a child or learn more about TJSL and TOPSoccer, you can do so at http://teanecksoccer.com.
By Adam Samuel
Adam Samuel is a journalist from Teaneck. He blogs at adamssoapbox.com.