From JSOnline.Com --
Faces of Hope
Getting a Kick Out of Volunteering
by Felicia Thomas-Lynn
Special needs children have always been at the center of John Burke's heart, and it didn't take long for the high school administrator to find a way to connect his love of soccer with their depth of spirit, and come up with a winning combination.
"I was inspired when I worked with Special Olympics while in college," said Burke, the International Baccalaureate coordinator at Catholic Memorial High School. "It was a defining moment."
That moment in time prompted Burke, who is also a girls' varsity soccer coach, to bring TOPSoccer - a community-based soccer program for young athletes with disabilities - to Waukesha nearly 10 years ago.
"There were so many athletic options for fully capable children, but not enough activities in place for children with special needs," said Burke, 45, of New Berlin, who in the beginning gathered together a few soccer friends to serve as volunteer coaches.
But the concept was so new at the time, "The first day, there weren't any athletes - and four coaches."
As word-of-mouth spread and interest increased over the years, the program has now become one of the strongest in the nation, with more than 40 participants with varying degrees of cognitive and physical disabilities, who are matched with 50 dedicated coaches.
"We love it," said Susan Kern, whose son, Michael, has Down syndrome and has been with the program for six years. "He is thriving. It's fun to see him get so much attention. There's no where else he could play soccer."
The program, which is designed to bring the opportunity of learning and playing soccer to any boy or girl, ages 4 to 19, runs from 9 to 10 a.m. every Saturday in gyms at the high school during three seasons.
The emphasis is on cooperative play, rather than competition, although some of the older kids have regular scrimmages.
And the program is now one of 10 in the state. Others are operating in Appleton, Neenah, Madison, Walworth, Racine, Sussex, Brookfield, La Crosse and Milwaukee, said John Janasik, the state founder and coordinator for the program, which is part of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association. TOP is an acronym for The Outreach Program.
"We are very happy with its success" Janasik said. "We had a dream that there would be multiple programs throughout Wisconsin. We are accomplishing our goal."
No longer are special needs children relegated to the sidelines, he said. "This is their time. They're the stars," he said. "They score goals, wear jerseys and are part of a family of players."
Each year, teams from throughout the state come together for Winterfest. The event will take place this year from 1 to 3 p.m. on Feb. 25 at Catholic Memorial High School, where one of the Waukesha coaches, Nicole Condit, will receive the Wisconsin TOPSoccer volunteer-of-the-year Award.
"It's such a rewarding and amazing experience to be part of the program," said Condit, a freshman at DePaul University, who began coaching in the eighth grade and returns on every college break.
"The kids are always happy. I am touched by them. They are some of the most brilliant kids I've ever met," said Condit, 18. "I am currently an International Studies major, but I have been thinking of changing my major to special education. This program has had a major impact in my life."
Mission: A community-based training and team placement program for young athletes with disabilities, organized by youth soccer association volunteers. It is designed to bring the opportunity of learning and playing soccer to any boy or girl who has a mental or physical disability.
Address: 601 E. College Ave., Waukesha, 53186 (Catholic Memorial High School/fall, winter and spring seasons.)
Phone: (262) 542-7101, Ext. 270