The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) is one of the two main national programs (along with US Youth Soccer) for the sport in the United States for children aged 4 through 19. Nationwide, AYSO offers a special "VIP Program" for developmentally disabled children and adults. It seeks to provide an enjoyable and healthy soccer environment for kids with mental or physical disabilities that would otherwise prevent them from being able to play. Players enjoy the complete AYSO experience, including uniforms, goals, cheering, coaches, and refs.
“VIP changed me as a Coach,” said Robert Nedelykovic, an AYSO boys' and VIP coach. “I have coached my son for nine years and love coaching the kids. But VIP has been a reminder to me that all kids just want to learn how to play and be on the field, while having a blast.”
The VIP Program started here in Southern California in 1991. AYSO has a VIP program in all 14 of its sections nationwide, according to Section 11 VIP Administrator Laurie Florow. And at least 20 new VIP programs start every year. There are over 5,000 VIP players playing soccer nationwide.
“I want to have an American Youth Soccer Organization Very Important Player program in every AYSO Region,” says Florow. “There’s no longer a maximum age, and I want anyone with a disability who wants to play to have the opportunity to play soccer.”
In order to ensure everyone gets on the field, AYSO VIP builds mixed-gender and -age teams in areas with fewer players. In sections with bigger numbers, teams are organized by age, size, and mobility. The season for the majority of VIP programs runs from September through the weekend before Thanksgiving, but a few programs play a spring season as well.
Part of how the participants play soccer is through the use of the VIP Buddies, who assist kids and adults on the field to ensure all players enjoy maximum involvement at their level. Buddies will partner with their players to make friends and help build skills and self-confidence. They may also help propel a wheelchair or run interference for a player. Not all VIP players need a Buddy, but with different abilities on the team, the Buddies can provide guidance and security to the VIP players as they learn soccer.
“I remember a player who stepped onto the field for only 30 seconds, holding his dad the entire time,” said Florow. “By the end of the second season, he stayed in the entire game without Dad on the field. One season later, he was kicking the ball!” The experience for the players, their families, and all the volunteers is very rewarding, as the VIPs grow in their abilities and love of the game. Many volunteers devote countless hours to ensure a real soccer experience for the players.
“Between genuine friendliness, inclusion, and patience, the VIP program is life-changing,” said Tes Rodriguez, parent of a new VIP player. “Our family has struggled with social events due to the obvious difficulties we face with our son, who has autism. In just three weeks we’ve seen some improvement in areas like socialization, following directions, actively listening, and especially having fun!”