AUGUST 2016: It’s a sad but true fact: Only 23 percent of Australians with a disability participate in regular sport, compared to 64 percent of the general population. Enter the Soccajoeys Foundation – which provides free indoor soccer skills and training classes to Aussie children with additional needs, (including those diagnosed with Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Global Development Delay, and other less common diagnoses), through its Next Step program.
Based on the innovative Soccajoeys soccer skills program that caters to mainstream children aged three to nine years, the Soccajoeys Next Step Program was formed in 2011, when Jose Bello, a former professional footballer, noticed a gaping lack of opportunity for children with special needs to get involved with group sporting activities. Jose believed that every child should have the opportunity to participate, regardless of ability and created Next Step as a tailored soccer program for children with additional needs, aged three to eight years.
“Our Soccajoeys Next Step classes focus on ability over disability and provide a safe, inclusive and fun environment for children of all abilities to be able to participate in and benefit from group sport,” says Bello, himself a father of two young children. “Our mission is to help build pathways for inclusion learning and social integration, while providing children with life skills that will enhance not only their physical development but their emotional, social and cognitive development as well,” he said.
Endorsed by Macquarie University and the University of Sydney, the Soccajoeys Foundation operates its Next Step classes at no cost to participating children and their families across five locations in greater Sydney, with plans to expand to South Australia and Victoria in the next 12 months. Classes are coached by a hands-on combination of skilled soccer coaches and occupational therapists, who understand the unique needs of their students.
Kids that attend Soccajoeys Next Step programs have been shown to benefit immensely from their involvement, both socially and developmentally, according to Bello. “From increased receptive language abilities and improved gross motor planning, to improved speech and language skills and the ability to understand new concepts, our Next Step kids also develop fantastic friendships and show enhanced social awareness, all of which help them to transition to mainstream soccer programs, should they desire, and is enormously beneficial as they approach their school years.”
Of the 200 children that have participated in the Soccajoeys Next Step program, 32 percent later joined mainstream Soccajoeys programs, and 15 children have gone on to join mainstream local soccer clubs.
Scott Birch, father of 4-year-old Ethan who has been attending Next Step classes for 18 months, believes that enrolling his son has been one of the most effective therapies he has under taken. “I couldn’t recommend Soccajoeys Next Step more highly to other parents of children with additional needs, especially those with Down Syndrome. When Ethan started, he could only walk in a straight line, he now walks in all directions, backwards, sideways, and runs confidently. It has helped improve his skills in a challenging and fun way,” he said.
Bridgette Sousa, Mum of 7-year-old Luca who lives with Autism Spectrum Disorder, has watched as her son’s gross motor, focus and listening skills improve, thanks to his participation in Next Step classes over the past two years. She adds that “as a parent, the judgement-free environment means you don’t need to be concerned about whether your child is ‘behaving’ or doing the right things.”
With a successful start and unparalleled results in such a short span of time, Bello plans to expand Soccajoeys Next Step to South Australia and Victoria in 2016. “The relative cost of running these programs is less than you’d think, but the impact they have is huge,” says Jose. “Everything we do, the environment we create and the lifelong lessons and skills we teach are possible through generous donations to the Soccajoeys Foundation.”
The Soccajoeys Next Step program runs classes in NSW in Bulli, Turramurra, Epping, Bondi Junction, and Baulkham Hills. For more information on the Foundation’s work, to enlist your child or to donate to the program, visit soccajoeysfoundation.com.