Community soccer program for athletes with disabilities wins first place
By Brittany Llorente
MELBOURNE - Regardless of their background or skill level, everyone deserves the opportunity to play sports.
This is the concept behind the Beachside TOPSoccer program, which was started and directed by local high school students and won international recognition this summer.
The not-for-profit program was formed early last year after Melbourne High School student-athletes Kimberly Bress, Cara Cagney, Elizabeth Bress and Beatrice Ottomanelli wanted to do their part to assist others in experiencing the many benefits of their favorite sport - soccer.
Beachside TOPSoccer has ties to the TOPSoccer program, which stands for The Outreach Program Soccer, a national organization aimed at creating a place where children and young adults with special needs can come to play soccer and feel accepted.
Beachside TOPSoccer is not focused on points or trophies, but rather the joy of playing the game, according to its website, www.beachsidetopsoccer.webs.com.
"The girls had an idea, and they ran with it," said Jennifer Ottomanelli, Beatrice's mother and fundraising head for the program.
After months of research and preparation, the girls, who are all juniors, marketed the concept as a "community program" and approached the Future Problem Solving Association at Melbourne High School for support.
"Words cannot express the love and dedication these girls have for this program," said Pamela Bress, team coach for the Future Problem Solving Association. "The volunteer buddies, who participate, deserve equal recognition. This truly is a unique group of selfless teenagers, who just want to make an impact on the athletes they serve and teach them that they are special and can play soccer like everybody else."
Operated through the Melbourne Beach Soccer Club, the program's activities and all activities are held at Flutie Fields, 2101 Oak St., Melbourne Beach.
It didn't take long for the program to expand, gaining more than 27 registered athletes and 50 young volunteers from throughout the area, who serve as "buddies" for the athletes.
In March, the team won the title of grand champions at the State of Florida Future Problem Solving Competition.
Then, in June, the program's four founders won first place in the senior division at the International Future Problem Solving Competition at Indiana University, which featured submissions from thousands of students in their age group, representing more than 13 different countries.
The short time between winning the Florida competition and the international competition was spent preparing reports, creating a video, presentation materials and a scrapbook of their experiences. They also spent numerous hours fundraising for their trip.
"It was really exciting because we got to show everyone what we had been working on," said Kimberly, a competition soccer player. "Its really great to win after all the work we have done, though even if we hadn't won, we would have enjoyed the experience just as much."
Now, back home with a well-earned trophy to mark their accomplishments, the girls are revved up for the fall season of Beachside TOPSoccer.
"The program is being provided free of charge by donations from the community," Ms. Ottamanelli said. "The (organizers) have written grants, and they solicited some corporate sponsorship. The registration and uniform fees are waived."
The girls' recent success also caught the eye of Dale Burke, the executive director of the Florida Youth Soccer Association.
At the Annual Florida Youth Soccer Association in August, the girls plan to meet with students from other high schools, who are interested in implementing TOPSoccer in their communities.
"It's very humbling to play soccer with the children and just to play soccer for fun," Kimberly said. "This program has touched so many lives, and I can't thank everyone enough."
To register for the fall season as a volunteer or athlete, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (321) 795-6205.