When Sinead Aylward was looking to enroll her autistic daughter into the Oak Park branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) 10 years ago, she discovered that there wasn’t any available program designed for kids with special needs.
“Soccer is one of the easiest sports to access; it’s just kicking a ball,” Aylward said. “I thought there must be some way for her to play.”
But instead of waiting for someone to create such a program, Aylward decided to take the initiative. She did some research and found that AYSO had a national program called Very Important Player, or VIP, for players who have physical or intellectual disabilities.
“The difficulties make it harder for [special needs] kids to play mainstream soccer,” Aylward said. “Many families would never consider it because it would be too challenging. There was nothing like the VIP division locally, so I contacted the Oak Park AYSO and asked why they didn’t have it.”
After the Oak Park AYSO indicated it would love to have a program but needed a volunteer to oversee it, Aylward was initially hesitant.
“At first, I didn’t want to do it. I wanted it to be done for me,” she said. “But after a couple of days, my husband and I felt we had to step up. I called them back and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Aylward received a manual from the national AYSO office of how to develop a local VIP program. Then she went out into the community and found several people willing to help, including a volunteer who traveled a long way to Oak Park.
“Several parents of those with disabilities stepped up,” Aylward said. “Coming up on the first game in 2013, we had one coach for two teams. So, I put up a message on Facebook looking for another coach, and someone from the south suburbs of Chicago said he’d come up and help us out.”
Aylward believes following the AYSO manual as best as possible and offering flexibility to the players has helped grow the program the last 10 years. In that time, 160 players have passed through the program, but Aylward said the impact VIP has had is more important than the numbers.
“The most enjoyable thing to see is our older players show the spirit of the game to the younger kids,” she said. “Our players have become mentors to each other, and it’s a truly unifying experience.”
Dyson takes VIP helm
After a decade overseeing the AYSO VIP divisions, Aylward stepped back to pursue other interests for her daughter. Christina Dyson took over this spring.
“I’m so happy for Christina,” said Aylward. “She’s been a coach in our program since the third season and is really energetic in developing the skills of the players. She makes sure that not only they participate, but their participation ends up in something meaningful. Christina is pumped and is exactly what AYSO needs.”
Dyson said she’s excited to build off of Aylward’s work.
“The AYSO VIP program to me is truly soccer for all,” she said. “We work with each individual student and parent to make sure the kids have the best experience possible.”
Indeed, there has been a wide variety of VIP players over the years.
“We’ve had a couple of students who were blind, so we have a ball that jingles; they can hear it,” Dyson said. “We’ve had a few people in wheelchairs, so we put bumpers on the wheels so that way they could be on the field. Also, some people need additional support, and they have someone standing next to them.”
Dyson is especially proud of the high school-age players who have provided leadership and mentorship to the younger participants. She said the AYSO board has provided a few recommendations on students’ college applications.
“It’s something you should be proud of and talk about on your application,” said Dyson, who has an autistic son participating in VIP.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find programs that are accepting of your child,” she said. “It’s really great for me as a parent to offer this program to others.”
Like other athletic programs, VIP has had to deal with challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a shutdown for all of 2020 and the spring of 2021. But Dyson said when VIP resumed last fall, there was good participation.
“We wouldn’t have this program without volunteers, and we’re grateful to them,” she said. “Also, the parents provide a lot of feedback, and they’ve been very supportive. That means we’ve been doing something well.”
The VIP fall season begins Sept. 10, and registration is still open. Dyson said the program could always use more volunteers, especially coaches and board members.
For more information, Dyson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available at AYSO Oak Park website at ayso697.org.