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Dylan Hoffman and buddy LaDonna Carroll run
through the player “tunnel,” formed by parents
at the end of every AYSO VIP Program game.
V-I-Ps ON THE FIELD
Local kids with special needs
become soccer stars through
AYSO’s VIP Program
By Kelly Damian
Photos by Mark Nessia
t’s Saturday morning, and Liberty Park is abuzz with the
activity of a day of youth soccer. Chairs are unfolded on
the sidelines, coolers dragged to the field, and snack
tables are set up.
It is a typical morning game for the American Youth Soccer Organization’s VIP Program of Northwest Bakersfield, a
league established for kids and parents accustomed to everything but “typical.”
AYSO’s Region 359 debuted its VIP Program last year with
15 players. This year, the number has doubled to 30. The program welcomes players who have physical or developmental
disabilities that would make play impossible on a standard
team. Players on a “Very Important Players” team might have
Bakersfield Life Magazine
Elizabeth Chavez hugs her dad following her
soccer match with AYSO VIP Program, a league
for children with special needs and disabilities.
autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or other serious
The 9 a.m. game does not begin with a huddle and a pep
talk from the coach. Instead, the action evolves slowly. Arriving players are matched up with buddies wearing camouflage
Maria Wright catches Lucas Cabral after a
game of “keep away” during an AYSO VIP
Program soccer game at Liberty Park.
T-shirts, many of whom are young soccer players themselves. Instead
of battling each other for the ball, each player gets his or her own to
kick down the field into the goal.
The field’s boundaries are more of a permeable membrane than
solid line. And at one point in the morning, a group of six people
(three players and three buddies) kicked their balls down the field
together, aiming for the same goal, cheering on each other.
“This is a godsend for us. He’s always so full of energy,” said Brittany Ryan, mother of Ethan, 4.
Ethan is autistic and much of his day at home is organized around
the Thomas the Train. Playing soccer gives him something else to
focus on, Ryan said. He loves wearing his cleats and shin guards, and
when he kicks the ball into the net, he runs, beaming, to his family
seated on the sidelines and shouts, “Clap!”
They clap, and Ethan smiles and runs away.
When 8-year-old Anthony Ingram, who is blind, plays, he doesn’t
use his cane. Instead he runs across the field with his buddy. When he
has dribbled the ball to the goal, he stops, feels it with his hands, and
then winds up for a tremendous kick.
“He loves to play soccer,” his mother, Karrie Ingram, said. “He
doesn’t realize he’s different. He loves to come out and run through
the tunnel and have the snack.”
It’s something that Anthony’s sisters have done for years through
AYSO. Now that the VIP Program has expanded to Region 359, he
plays on the same fields as his sisters.
For Aiden Torres, the weekly soccer games are a way for him to
release the stress that comes with Asperger’s syndrome. When he’s at
home, the 9-year-old feels a constant need to be busy and focus on
everything around him. When he plays soccer, it’s easier to concentrate on his one task — getting the ball across the field and into the
goal. At the end of the game, he runs up to his mom, Alma Torres,
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Continued from page 125
sweating, and out of breath.
“How many goals did you make?”
she asks Aiden.
“79 scores,” he answers, smiling.
AYSO VIP Program
Director Shelly Lee began
When: Region 359 season
ends today, Sign ups available
working for VIP as a buddy last year.
for the next session.
She thought she was just going to help
Check Facebook page “AYSO
one Saturday a week, but she ended up
Region 359” for updates.
having a life-changing experience, she
Contact: Sarah Rushing at
said. Because of her work with the kids
and parents of the VIP soccer program,
she has decided to get her teaching creMore information:
She feels inspired by the kids she
sees every week, she said.
“They don’t care what’s in their
way,” Lee said. “They just want to have fun.”
Each player in the blue VIP uniform has his or her own
way of getting across the field, some with quiet intensity, others with reckless abandon. Some are carried to the goals by
their buddies, and others leave their buddies sweating and
chasing after them. But for every player, when the ball crosses
into the goal and rolls into the orange netting, there is the
same reaction: a bump up of the head, a smile and a glance
across the field to see if their parents are watching.
Anthony Miller races down the field during
an AYSO VIP Program soccer game as his
buddy Grace Fleming cheers him on.
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