Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
It was in 2006 when a parent asked the Braden River Soccer Club if it could accommodate a child with autism spectrum disorder.
Although the club hadn't encountered the request before, board member Dave Robinson didn't see why it would be a problem.
Unfortunately, it just wasn't a good fit.
Robinson, however, couldn't stand the thought of turning the child away, and so he did some research and found the national TOPSoccer program that attached itself to local soccer clubs and benefitted children with special needs.
"I've been director of the program since we started it in January of 2007," said Robinson, who lives in River Club. "I knew of no other soccer clubs in the area that hosted TOPSoccer."
That first season, 40 children signed up as well as 70 volunteers, many of them high school students. When the season begins , the program will serve more than 60 children. The club uses the county soccer fields behind Lakewood Ranch High School for the free program.
Robinson admits he was a bit nervous that first year as he tried to recruit players and volunteers. "One of the unique things about the league is that you need as many volunteers as you have players," Robinson said. "That way it becomes much easier to build a bond with the players. The 'buddies' and the players get to know each other and they build a truly special relationship."
East County's Laurel Nanney has seen those personal relationships develop. Her 10-year-old son, Cole, has been a member of the TOPSoccer program for three seasons.
"We moved here from Miami in 2014 and Miami didn't have a program like this," she said. "Cole has high-functioning Aspergers syndrome and he has very low muscle tone. It's hard for me to keep muscle on him. He also has had other issues, such as a heart condition and other physical ailments. He felt like he didn't fit in with other children because he can't keep up.
"But this program has made him feel part of something, and that has helped him build some strength and muscle. He feels like an everyday kid."
Like the other children in the program, Cole is matched with a buddy, most often a high school student or a young college student. Laurel Nanney said she loves watching as the buddies connect with her son and do whatever they can to make the participants feel special.
"I have met a lot of Lakewood Ranch High students and they are amazing," she said. "They enjoy being there and it shows. They are working with children with disabilities and they see it as a warm, friendly, uplifting environment."
The league has such an impact on many of the high school volunteers, Nanney said they have told her they are now thinking about becoming doctors or therapists as they move toward a career.
Most of all, she loves the volunteers just treat her son like a kid, not like a kid with special needs.
It only took one game in 2015 for Cole to want to be a regular. "His second time here, he was pushing the ball around, getting it into the goal, scoring," she said. "He was being competitive for the first time in his life."
All the while, she said those at TOPSoccer, — all the league officials, the volunteers, the buddies — kept their eyes on the players to make sure they were competing in a safe environment. That allowed her to sit along the sidelines and relax, something she appreciates as a rare gift.
Meanwhile, Cole has made lots of friends and he gets to be part of a team.
"He feels all the things any other kid would feel," she said. "And I have a community sense. I am able to talk to the other parents."
Robinson continues to work in the background.
"Dave is amazing," she said. "I don't know how he does everything he does. He is one-in-a-million, sweet, kind, easygoing. Everyone feels like he listens to them.
Robinson, who has earned the various coaching and safety designations needed over the years, continues to enjoy his time as league director and he especially enjoys watching the volunteers build bonds with the children. His basic instruction to the volunteers is to bring the right attitude and try to have fund. The rest takes care of itself.
The program itself runs on Sundays with volunteer coaches helping the players and practicing skills with a scrimmage capping the day's activities. All volunteers do undergo a background check. Parents are required to remain at the field during activities.
Robinson admits there is a bigger learning curve when coaching the children whose needs are more severe. "It is much like coaching with a bigger heart," he said. "But for the majority, it's let's just have some fun."
He does have some built-in support at home as his wife, Samantha, is an occupational therapy teacher at the Rowlett Academy in Bradenton. Dave Robinson often tells her about situations and asks her opinion. But he said she likes to remain behind the scenes.
They have three grown children — Ben, Bryan and Mallory — who all played for Braden River Youth Soccer.
Dave Robinson is a sales engineer for Honeywell who works on efficiency projects, often for the military. He played high school soccer but could make his college team as a walk-on player.
Now the TOPSoccer program has become a big part of his life. He has become the state's TOPSoccer chairman and the Southeast U.S. chairman.
"It has been great we get such a turnout from the community (to be volunteers)," he said. "We do give them a little orientation. We tell them to always be encouraging, to bend down low to talk at eye level. Each week, we remind them.
"But the volunteers have told me they enjoy it so much. That makes me feel so good because I am just the band leader waving the baton. Without the buddies, we couldn't make the music."
He said the volunteers often come into the program like the participating children. They are shy and reserved. That goes away as both the buddies and the athletes build confidence.
"Certainly there is a fitness benefit," Robinson said. "But for sure they gain social skills that will help in their home life and school life. They learn to encounter people in a way where they can be competitive. They become better soccer players, and better teammates."
Volunteers can sign up for the program, which serves any boy or girl 4 and older who has an intellectual, physical or emotional disability, through Sept. 13. The program runs 12:30 p.m. to noon from Sept. 16 through Nov. 11. For more information, go to bradenriversoccer.org.
Anyone with questions about the league can email Robinson at [email protected].
"For me, going out and seeing the smiles, the laughter and the joy is precious," Robinson said.