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Soccer gives disabled a place to learn

CARY (AP) — Kicking a soccer ball while it's moving is difficult for Tisha Brown's 6-year-old daughter, Anaka, who has trouble balancing on one leg because of distal arthrogryposis, which is tightness in joints and muscles that restricts movements.

So volunteers at The Outreach Program for Soccer run by the Cary Soccer Association work with Anaka - and other children with disabilities - one on one and adapt activities to everyone's individual skill levels.

TOPSoccer, which started in the fall, is a way to offer soccer for youngsters with physical or cognitive disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome. There are some youngsters who use wheelchairs or walkers but still participate.

The program is free for children 5 and older with any kind of disability in the northwest suburbs.

Inside the Sage Products gym, which the company donated on Saturdays because of the cold weather, youngsters practice dribbling a soccer ball while weaving around cones and passing to other players.

At the end of 45-minute sessions, the children are divided into two groups and run a scrimmage.

All of the youngsters are paired with volunteers to guide them through drills and provide encouragement and positive reinforcement, said Lynne O'Malley, who coordinates TOPSoccer for the Cary Soccer Association.

"They're there to feed the ball to the (youngsters), and do whatever it takes to make the child feel like they're succeeding in what they're doing," O'Malley said. "A lot of these kids never played soccer before. For them it's important because they could be part of a program."

The volunteer buddies take part in sensitivity training. Recently Pediatric Place, a pediatric physiotherapy clinic in Crystal Lake, donated time to provide a training workshop focusing on children with special needs and how to better understand and interact with them, O'Malley wrote in an email.

Brown said Anaka is so physically challenged that in other programs, children would run by her and leave her behind.

"When I looked into this and saw they had kids in wheelchairs, and saw they had the big soccer ball, I thought maybe we could actually do this," Brown said.

Brown, of Crystal Lake, said Anaka loves the buddies.

"I don't know if the buddies realize how much of an impact they make on the kids," Brown said.

Anaka has watched her older sisters participate in ice skating, volleyball and basketball, but now "she could have her own sport," Brown said.

Kim Kirby of McHenry brings her 14-year-old son, Nolan, who is autistic and does not speak.

Kirby said having Nolan in the program is good for his socialization with other youngsters and ensures he exercises.

"Just to be part of a team and do things ... that other kids get to do, we don't have those opportunities," Kirby said.

Nolan tends to be off on his own and doesn't follow the routine the other youngsters go through.

"The buddies seem to work to each kid's individual ability," Kirby said. "They work to what he could do."

Sarah Logan, 16, a junior at Cary-Grove High School, works with Nolan.

"You could tell he wants to say something. Sometimes I can't understand why he's acting a certain way," Logan said. "That's one of the main challenges."

Logan also recruits volunteers and pairs them with kids in the program based on the participants' personalities. The Cary resident said she enjoys working with youngsters with disabilities.

"I love it. It's my favorite thing to do," Logan said. "They just bring so much joy to me."

Betsy Davis of Barrington brings her son, Jack, 12, who suffered a brain hemorrhage two years ago. He had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat and make noise.

Jack played football and soccer before suffering the hemorrhage, Davis said.

During the TOPSoccer sessions, Jack and his volunteer work on coordination skills such as bouncing a ball off a knee.

"It gets me back to playing soccer again," Jack said.

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