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The Carletonian

Reaching out: Students team up with Northfield community in debut of TOPSoccer program

<aditionally, Sunday afternoons afford Carleton College students precious time to rest and regroup before the next week’s barrage of classes and co-curricular commitments. A small subset of the student population, though, can also be found harnessing the weekend-weekday interface for the betterment of the broader Northfield community. On Sundays at 3:00 pm, student volunteers flock to Cowling Gym where they help local youth with disabilities learn and play soccer as part of the TOPSoccer project (The Outreach Program for Soccer). The TOPSoccer project, which saw its Carleton debut on the first weekend of Winter Term, is Northfield’s first such community-based athletics program for youth with disabilities.

A first glance at TOPSoccer training reveals typical elements of a conventional youth soccer practice: sessions incorporate the fundamentals of dribbling, passing and receiving, defending, and attacking, all with a heavy emphasis on good sportsmanship. A closer examination of athlete-to-athlete and athlete-to-coach interactions during these training sessions, however, reveals virtues extending far beyond the realm of the sport itself.

“As the athletes interact with volunteers, they are not only learning how to pass the ball or dribble past a defender, but also how to navigate social interactions and make friends,” said ACT Center staff member Libbie Weimer ’10. Weimer, who helped launched TOPSoccer on campus and continues to help with publicity, transportation, and recruitment for the program, recognizes the value of reaching out to teenagers who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to participate in athletics. For these athletes, many of whom struggle with autism, TOPSoccer provides a supportive environment where they can develop team-building skills, increase self-confidence, and improve their overall fitness and health.

The foundations for this environment were first laid when Lynn Miland, currently the Northfield TOPSoccer Coordinator, became frustrated with the inaccessibility of high school athletics programs for her daughter Kelly. Looking to fill this void for disabled Northfield teenagers such as her daughter, [no prefix] Miland found a solution in US Youth Soccer’s national TOPSoccer initiative for the service of physically or mentally disabled youth between the ages of 4 and 19.

To Miland, even in its infancy TOPSoccer at Carleton is fulfilling this mission of service. Attesting to the immediate positive impact of the program on her daughter, she said, “When Kelly gets home [from TOPSoccer sessions], she’s so happy because she’s been able to connect with her friends and broaden her social circle.” What Kelly loves most about the sessions is not just the soccer-playing itself but the chance to build relationships with peers on a weekly basis. “If anything,” her mother adds, “learning soccer is the byproduct.”

Sharing the same sentiments is Aria McAfee, another athlete participating in this program at Carleton. When asked about her favorite parts of TOPSoccer, Aria cited “meeting new people” and “just having fun” as the leading incentives to return from week to week. Her father Glen, who accompanies Aria to the Sunday sessions, lauded the program for its highly adaptive nature. “I think it’s a good environment for these kids because the coaches tailor the exercises to the kids’ abilities,” said Mr. [keeping his suffix because there are more than one McAfee] McAfee. “The experiences are slightly different than what’s available to [the athletes] at their high schools.”

Critical to the success of TOPSoccer at Carleton is steady commitment from a corps of student volunteers. Among the 15 current volunteers is Wes Elfman ’11 of Carleton Men’s Soccer, whose past involvement with Northfield Special Olympics first sparked his interest in working with disabled athletes. Elfman exhibits an acute awareness of just how influential Carleton students can be for the TOPSoccer athletes:

“As college students, we have the ability to connect with the athletes as we are close in age, but at the same time we can serve as mentors and role models. I think that we have an opportunity to make a huge difference in our immediate community and change the lives of these athletes.”

Eager to share the sport he loves most with youth who may be denied athletic opportunities elsewhere, Elfman looks forward to playing a larger role in organizing training sessions to come.

ACT Center Assistant Director Kelly Scheuerman, who first proposed the idea of TOPSoccer to student coordinators, understands how rewarding this coaching experience can be for Carleton volunteers. Says Scheuerman, “I think it is a great opportunity for Carleton students to share their knowledge and expertise of a sport, develop leadership skills, build relationships, have fun, and build a bridge to an under-served population in our community.”

And if nothing else, as Libbie Weimer assures, “It’s a great study-break and a way to be playing soccer despite the winter weather.”
TOPSoccer sessions take place in Cowling Gym every Sunday, 3:00 pm-4:00 pm, for the rest of the term. For more information about this program, visit or stop by the ACT Center for details.

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