"Miracles are Happening Every Day" in TOPSoccer Leagues
It all started with one little girl with special needs who wanted to play soccer like all the other kids her age.
Leslie Ellingson’s mom, Nancy, signed her up for recreational soccer in Placentia, California with specific instructions to the coach:
“Please treat my daughter just like the other girls on the team.”
Lesley was lucky enough to have Sandy Castillo as her coach.
Sandy knew that she couldn’t play Lesley, who has Down Syndrome, exactly the same as her teammates.
But she could make her a star.
Every time the team scored three goals – and this was most games because the team came together – nobody else could score again until Lesie had put the ball in the back of the net.
“It was a real team effort to keep Leslie involved in the game,” said Sandy. “All the kids were working to pass her the ball and saying, ‘Leslie's got to score, Leslie's got to score.’”
This was more than 25 years ago but not only was it one of the most memorable seasons anyone on that rec. team would ever play, it also provided the spark to launch the The Outreach Program for Soccer (TOPSoccer) in Cal South that has grown over a quarter of a century to now embrace 546 players of all ages playing in 25 TopSoccer leagues.
When US Youth Soccer decided to launch the program, Sandy and Leslie’s mom, Nancy, were the obvious candidates to get the ball rolling…and Leslie was the first player to register.
“They had four kids that wanted to play and no coach so I agreed to do it and I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Sandy, who is now the Cal South and Region 4 TOPSoccer chair.
In some sense, this is the purest kind of football you will get to see. It’s not about competition and it doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it’s simply about playing the game for its own sake.
It was not an opportunity that was always there for children – or adults for that matter – with special needs. Many organizations still worry that they won’t be able to cope with some conditions.
That’s not a question that is even asked with TOPSoccer. Everybody is welcome.
“It is all about providing a safe environment for them to come out and learn the game,” said Sandy. “I didn’t know I’d be doing it for this long, but they wrap themselves around your heart and I couldn’t let them go. It has been so inspiring.
“We get excited by the progression. We have players standing in the same spot for three years and suddenly they kick the ball and we’re all whooping and cheering. It’s not one size fits all.”
She said three new players had just learned about the local program she has run since its inception. “They are aged 46, 44 and 30 and they were so excited to find out they could play soccer and get the opportunity to be a part of a team.”
Club teams are invited to play against the TOPSoccer players, an initiative that has also paid huge dividends for some families of special needs children off the field as well as on.
“Parents say to me things like, ‘The most amazing thing just happened to us at the store. Kids are coming up to my child and saying things like, ‘We just played against you at soccer and boy, you were good.’
“’Do you know how rare that is? For my son or daughter to be treated as an equal?’ Soccer has done that for them Soccer is a great equalizer. You can modify the rules so that everyone can be successful. We are an ability based program; it doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Cal South supports TOPSoccer, helping to subsidize membership costs and equipment. “Our program is never going to make money,” says Sandy, “it is about providing opportunities.”
Run entirely by volunteers, many club and recreational soccer players help out with coaching activities and on the sideline. “I tell the kids it looks great on their resumes,” says Sandy.
There are three rules – every player must be registered, every coach 18 and older must be registered and take a risk management course and there must be a safe environment for the players. Other than that, the programs are fitted around the specific needs of the players.
“Every success is cheered and there are no failures,” says Sandy. “Miracles are happening out there every day.”
On Saturday, July 25, Cal South continues to celebrates its 25th anniversary of TOPSoccer with a free festival at Jerry Eaves Park, 1485 N. Ayala Dr., Rialto, CA 92377 where current and potential special needs players will get the opportunity to see what the program has to offer.
For more details about CalSouth TOPSoccer, visit the organization's site: http://www.calsouth.com/es/topsoccer/.