Making Sure Everyone Has The Opportunity To Play The Beautiful Game
Soccer News: The goal at AYSO is for every child to have the opportunity to play soccer. The AYSO VIP (Very Important Player) Program was officially launched in 1991. The program provides a great soccer experience for children and adults whose physical or mental disabilities make it difficult to participate on mainstream teams. VIP teams can include individuals who are blind or visually impaired, or have limited mobility, autism, Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy. All VIP programs are run entirely by volunteers.
VIP works by creating teams made up of VIP players and “buddies” to help them on the field. A “buddy” is a non-disabled person intended to guide a VIP player on the field of play and, when, if no longer needed to assist physically and continues to be part of the player support system from the sideline. Teams are organized by ability, size, or gender according to the needs of the Region. Fields and game times are also made to accommodate the players. Jerseys, banners and all the standard soccer gear are also part of the experience.
The goal for VIP is to help the athletes gain confidence, learn teamwork and the rules of the game, and enjoy physical exercise. Flexibility is a key component to administering the program. Overall, the VIP experience is meant to be fun, fair and safe for the athletes. Team sports are one of the defining experiences of childhood.
Weekday practices, Saturdays on the field, winning, losing, and the excitement of play are all part of growing up. VIP makes it possible for children with disabilities to enjoy these rites of passage.
There are currently 207 AYSO Regions that have VIP programs out of the 900 overall programs and there are 3,506 total registered players that participate in a VIP program.
So how can you get involved? There are many ways to make a difference. You can become a VIP Buddy or Volunteer or even start a VIP Program in your Region. Visit AYSO’s VIP section online, to learn more.
GoalNation spoke with Melani Jaskowiak, AYSO Section 12 VIP Administrator:
Andrea Garcia: Can you tell me about your role with AYSO and the VIP Program.
Melani Jaskowiak: I am the AYSO Section 12 VIP Administrator. Section 12 includes, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and the SE corner of Colorado. As the section VIP Administrator, I am responsible for training volunteers to be VIP Instructors or VIP Volunteers (coaches, referees, and buddies) and VIP administrators at the Region level as well as supporting current programs and working to create new programs. I also am the Area D VIP Administrator which encompasses the Phoenix Metro area and two small more rural communities; Globe and Wickenburg, AZ. An Area VIP Administrator is involved in training volunteers and supporting current and new programs.
Andrea Garcia: How long have you been involved with the AYSO VIP Program?
Melani Jaskowiak: I have been involved in the AYSO VIP Program for 4 years both at the Area and Section level. Prior to that when I was Regional Commissioners and I started a VIP program in my home Region.
Andrea Garcia: What inspires you to be a part of the AYSO VIP Program?
Melani Jaskowiak: The AYSO VIP program touches the heart. It really embodies the spirit of the game of soccer. The VIP players are playing for fun and it really warms my heart to watch them and see their joy at being successful in soccer. It is the players themselves that inspire me to be a part of the program.
Andrea Garcia: How unique is the AYSO VIP Program?
Melani Jaskowiak: The AYSO VIP program is unique in that it offers soccer for individuals with disabilities age 4 through adulthood. The program has evolved from just children over the age of 4 to now include adults with disabilities. There are other options available however they have youth/age restrictions, where AYSO does not.
Andrea Garcia: What has been your greatest challenge with the VIP Program?
Melani Jaskowiak: The greatest challenge working with the VIP program is the slow growth of player participation. This program grows faster through word of mouth then traditional advertising/marketing. Families of individuals with disabilities often have a full weekly schedule and it is difficult to make the commitment to another event. But once they try VIP, they are usually hooked.
Andrea Garcia: When did your love for soccer start?
Melani Jaskowiak: I started playing soccer in my 20’s for physical activity and have grown to love it. Both of my children played soccer and I continue to play indoor soccer on an over 30 co-ed league.
Andrea Garcia: What is your vision/future goal for the AYSO VIP Program?
Melani Jaskowiak: I would like to see the AYSO VIP Program continue to grow and expand. Maybe offer soccer to different groups of people such as returning veterans with physical limitations. It would be wonderful to have an AYSO VIP program in every Region that has an AYSO program and even start VIP only Regions for other communities across the country.
The AYSO VIP Program was meant to make a change in the lives of children and adults with disabilities, but it is so much more than that. The program touches the heart of the volunteers, buddies, parents, mainstream players and entire communities, all over the nation.
“I came across AYSO VIP while doing a google search for adaptive sports for my child and emailed my local AYSO organization to ask why they did not have a VIP program,” said Sinead Aylward, VIP Division Coordinator, Region 697. “I was a little nervous when I received the reply that the only reason they did not have one was that they did not have a volunteer to run it and would I like to do it. As you can imagine, it was not part of my plan to be a soccer mom. As a full time working parent to a non-verbal child with a catastrophic form of childhood epilepsy, developmental delay and autism, I pretty much had my hands full.
I realized that we can’t have the things we want unless we are willing to invest time in them so I decided to start a VIP program in Oak Park.
“Within weeks we entered our first season with 22 players, 2 coaches and no idea what we were doing. Somehow, it worked out and more players came,” said Aylward. “Now, we are entering our fall season and 5th VIP session and we have 38 registered players. I had no idea it would grow this big so quickly, but I am glad that we are able to do this for all kids with disabilities, especially my own.”
“Being VIP buddies over the years was the most amazing experience my kids have ever had,” said Julie Boughton, VIP Parent of Buddies, Region 697. “This was the one commitment I never had to remind them to honor. I believe they learned the true meaning of persistence and sportsmanship by spending time with these special kids. I hope the players, their parents and coaches know what an honor it is for the buddies to be a part of this great program. Pure joy on the pitch.”
“Isaac is doing good and having fun,” said Kim Sosa, VIP Parent, Region 168. “I am very happy with how excited he is to go to soccer. Normally we have to fight with him to get him out of the house but when it comes to soccer he is ready to go. Thanks again for all your league is doing.”
“I enjoy helping out in the community as much as possible. The place where I saw the most impact from myself to another person was in the AYSO VIP soccer program,” said Bjorn Vogen, VIP Buddy, Region 697. “Honestly I was nervous because I didn’t know how the experience would go, but as the season went on I began to feel more comfortable. I was able to work one-on-one with an amazing kid named Ben, who has Down Syndrome.
“At the beginning of the season, Ben was not as involved in the game and would rather sit on the side and throw the ball at the fence,” said Vogen. “Towards the end of the season, I realized why I was volunteering. I finally got Ben to go into the game and he dribbled the ball up the field and scored a goal. After scoring he ran to his mom and gave her a big hug, that was when I knew that I was doing the right thing. I realized that I loved to help others because it brought me joy to see Ben so happy. Ben felt accomplished which made me feel accomplished.”
“VIP is more than just a soccer program for individuals with physical and mental disabilities,” said Craig Collins, VIP Administrator, Region 1112. “VIP allows a positive teamwork environment between the players, the buddies, the parents of the players, and the community. I have players on my mainstream teams, who are also VIP Buddies, become more excited for the VIP games than their own mainstream games.”
“When I think of AYSO VIP, I think of Laura and Faith,” said Alan Devan, VIP Coordinator, Region 128. “Laura is what VIP is all about. She started playing VIP soccer at the young age of 11 and now I am very proud to say as an 18 year old young adult she is giving back by becoming a VIP volunteer. Laura does a fantastic job helping VIP players enjoy the game that has been such a big part of her life. Faith, absolutely loves and lives VIP soccer each Saturday. Faith is in tears when it is time to end our weekly session. It is players like Laura and Faith that make the time worth every minute.”
Photos Courtesy of AYSO