By Gillian Hand
Every Saturday afternoon, sneakers are laced, team jerseys put on, and excitement builds. It’s game day. Players head to the field, ready for an afternoon of soccer.
This isn’t just any Chappaqua sport, though. This is AYSO VIP, a program dedicated to providing a safe and enjoyable sports experience for children with mental, social or physical disabilities that prevent them from participating on town teams. VIP, which stands for “Very Important Player,” teaches the foundation and skills of the game while also addressing the particular needs of every player. Like mainstream AYSO soccer, the program runs in both the fall and spring, and plays like any other AYSO sport.
With over 20 players, ranging from ages four to 14, VIP allows all children with varying disabilities the opportunity to learn, have fun and be a part of a team. The program helps build self-esteem and provides chances for exercise and socialization with others. At the start of each session, each player is assigned a “buddy”–an able-bodied volunteer helper who assists them both on and off the field. Each practice/game starts with group stretching, after which players can choose to play in the game or simply work on their skills with their buddies. These volunteers stay with the children throughout the practice, always teaching, assisting and encouraging. Whether it’s a high-five for a good kick or a cheer for a goal, buddies keep the kids in high spirits and enthusiastic about the game. There is always space set aside for one-on-one attention, and many different activities that the players can engage in.
Part of the Team
VIP Coordinator Josh Lurie first learned about VIP when he brought his daughter Charlotte to a similar program in Tarrytown several years ago. Thrilled with the opportunity it presented for his special needs child, he went to AYSO to propose a VIP program in Chappaqua. In 2010, the program was born here in town, and with support from the community and AYSO, VIP has progressed into the “fun, safe and healthy sports environment” Lurie hoped it to be. He even hopes to eventually have games against the VIP teams in other towns.
Parents of the players, says Lurie, have been incredibly grateful for the program. “They can sit down and watch their kids run around, which they usually don’t get the opportunity to do.” Parent Joanna Segal, who’s daughter Leora, age 12, participates in VIP, finds the program wonderful. With two other daughters who play Chappaqua sports, she loves being able to also see Leora as part of a team, enjoying not only the sports themselves but the social aspect as well. “Leora is so excited when she wakes up in the morning knowing it’s game day,” said Segal. “She puts on her uniform proudly and is so thrilled to be part of the team. VIP has allowed her to be more connected to the community.”
Expanding Beyond Soccer
The popularity of the VIP soccer program convinced Lurie that a similar program could be offered during the winter. With the assistance of the New Castle Youth Basketball Association, which helps scheduling court time, VIP basketball was introduced two years ago, and has become popular as well. Not only does the basketball program give the kids another activity to engage in during soccer’s off season, but it also provides an outlet for winter activity and maintains the contact with the friends they made during the fall.
As the program and its need for buddies grew, a Greeley club was formed to recruit and coordinate the volunteers. VIP Special Connection, formed by Greeley students Margot Putnam and Dana Weinberg about a year ago, spreads word of the program and informs the volunteers of practice time and location. Special Connection has doubled the number of volunteer buddies, typically 7th through 12th graders, many of whom form relationships with the VIP children and truly get to know them.
“VIP has been one of the most rewarding things in any aspect of my life.” said Lurie. “You can see the impact it has on kids.” Kids gain a sense of joy and normalcy, which may not always come easily to them. As they score a goal and look up to see their parents cheering for them from the sidelines, or return to their families after the concluding VIP cheer, the players’ smiles are contagious. As a VIP “buddy” who has worked with these young soccer and basketball players for the past two years, I can’t help but smile along with them. Being able to see their progress and happiness is a feeling like no other, and it’s a privilege for me to be able to participate in this extraordinary program. For more info, visit
Gillian Hand will be a freshman at Horace Greeley High School in the fall.