By Anna-Marie Menhenott
ST. LUCIE COUNTY -- For many parents, attending a sporting event and cheering on their child as he or she bounces a basketball, throws a football, catches a baseball or kicks a soccer ball is a weekly event.
However, for some parents of children with disadvantages, whether mental of physical, the joy of cheering their child on while participating in a sport is not always a reality.
For Victor Nunes and other coaches and staff at The Outreach Program for Soccer in Port St. Lucie, encouraging those special children on to victory on the soccer field has become a passion.
"This program is more about what you get back, rather than what you could possibly give," Mr. Nunes said. "To see the smiles on the faces of children who normally don't get to participate on a team is so gratifying. It's almost selfish to take part in the TOPS program. We get so much from these great kids."
Children with Autism, Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, some in wheel chairs, some with braces on their limbs, some nearly blind, meet once a week at Swan Park in Port St. Lucie for a couple of hours of practice, team work and camaraderie.
Children work one-on-one with their coach to build a rapport that is sometimes approached with hesitation.
"The children are sometimes hesitant to warm up to their coach," Mr. Nunes said. "We take time with each child and encourage them. Everything at the soccer field is positive. There are lots of high fives and accolades each week. At the end of the seven- week season, there is an award ceremony where each player gets a trophy."
Students from area high schools volunteer their time on Saturday mornings to help the players through the practice. There are simple obstacle courses, some soccer skills and lots of time for parents to sit back and enjoy their children in an environment that isn't always accommodating.
"The parents really enjoy watching the kids play," said Mr. Nunes. "It gives the parents a break and they get to interact with other parents who are facing some of the same difficulties. It's a break from the hardships that some of these parents face each day."
The TOPS program is offered free to special needs children in the area. The participants are given a uniform and trophies at the end of the season.
The Port St. Lucie TOPS program was recently awarded the Top TOPS program in Florida award, proving that their mission of helping children fit into a society that sometimes disregards those who are disadvantaged is working.
TOPS has teams throughout the state, from the panhandle to the keys. Mr. Nunes would like to see the local programs band together to form a team that could play against other teams in the state.
"Some of the children are really good," Mr. Nunes said. "The children who are able to learn a particular skill, remember it and then use it could benefit from taking their play to a higher level. The children absolutely love the program. I have parents who tell me that the children insist on driving past the park on days that there's no practice just to check to make sure nobody is there. It's such a great feeling to know that these kids are getting as much out of the program as we are."
TOPS is in search of sponsors for the upcoming fall season. Those interested in sponsoring a team or who would like more information can call Mr. Nunes at (772) 323-7987.