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Soccer is for everyone

Liliana Vignovic, 8, blocks a shot during a two-day soccer camp for special needs children put on by the Seneca Valley Soccer Association’s Tops Soccer program at Grahm Park in Cranberr Twp. Saturday. According to Tops Soccer chairperson Carrie Weinreich, the association “hopes to build the camp into an 8-week soccer season for these kids...” Harold Aughton/Special to the Eagle

CRANBERRY TWP — On the fields of Graham Park, children with special needs played alongside Seneca Valley coaches and friends during the first TOPSoccer special-needs camp Saturday morning.

The Seneca Valley Soccer Association held the event hoping to partner with the national program by U.S. Youth Soccer.

Carrie Weinreich, who coaches the girls’ traveling soccer team for the Seneca Valley Soccer Association, said the TOPSoccer program encourages clubs to create inclusive environments for learning the sport.

“They want to provide opportunities for children with physical and mental disabilities to play soccer in a relaxed environment,” she said. “Today is about the basics of soccer, the fun aspects of soccer.”

The program served as a test run to eventually offer a full season of soccer activities and scrimmages, according to Weinreich.

At various stations, children from kindergarten through fifth grade were taught to shoot, pass and goalkeep, as well as play the games Sharks and Minnows, and Red Light, Green Light.

A sensory field with stuffed animals and soccer bowling was arranged for children with limited mobility.

Carson Koch blocks the ball during a two-day soccer camp for special needs children put on by the Seneca Valley Soccer Association as part of the Tops Soccer program. According to Tops Soccer chairperson Carrie Weinreich, the association “hopes to build the camp into an 8-week soccer season for these kids...” Harold Aughton/Special to the Eagle

Jamie Gramz, soccer coach for Seneca Valley, said more than 20 children participated on the field. Each child was paired with a “buddy,” a soccer player from the school district, to play with one-on-one.

“Some children have physical and mental needs, some are nonverbal, some have visual impairments,” he said. “We’re hoping this becomes a repeat thing.”

Following the exercises, children had the opportunity to play alongside their buddy in a scrimmage.

Kinsley Pournaras, a 14-year-old “buddy” and center defense player for Century Steel soccer, said she and the younger children were learning from the experience.

“I think it’s good to help younger kids learn the sport and to meet new people like them,” she said. “I’m learning how different people learn and how different people react to things like scoring.”

Parents watched from the sidelines, cheering on their children. Nathan and Grazyelle Pauliuk, watched their son, Nicolas, run around the field energetically.

Nathan Pauliuk said they decided to bring their 6-year-old son, who has autism, as an opportunity to make friends.

“I think physical activity is so important for children, it helps them vent their frustration and anxiety they have,” he said. “Here, he actually has people who understand his needs. He’s at home a lot, he doesn’t have an outlet where he can meet people, besides school.”

Micah Richendrfer, 10, blocks a shot during a two-day soccer camp for special needs children put on by the Seneca Valley Soccer Association’s Tops Soccer program. According to Tops Soccer chairperson Carrie Weinreich, the association “hopes to build the camp into an 8-week soccer season for these kids...” Harold Aughton/Special to the Eagle

He added the event was just as good for parents.

“It’s for us too. It helps us realize we’re not alone. We’re networking, he’s making friends and great memories,” he said.

Sarah Conway, autism ministry director at North Way Christian Community Church, said she decided to partner with Weinreich on the event to supply parents and children with resources and support.

“It’s cool to see new people show up because of the collaboration,” she said. “The bottom line is, you can never get enough opportunities like this. It’s hard for parents to find activities for their kids and actually sit on the sidelines, like other parents get to do.”

Conway said most parents she knows with special-needs children don’t often get to slow down.

“To see the parents I know rest, it’s so special. It’s so rare,” she said. “This was designed for kids who have disabilities. Normally these kids have to be fit into neuro-normal activities.”