by Moira Cullings
OVERLAND PARK — Often referred to as the soccer capital of America, Kansas City is now doing more than ever to give the gift of the sport to children who might not otherwise have the chance to play.
That opportunity is called TEAMSoccer — a program that works with young athletes who have special needs to develop their skills. (TEAM stands for Training Enthusiastic Athletes with Mentors.)
Under the leadership of Tom Gorczyca, Michael Eagan and Carah Berry, and with the help of volunteer mentors and coaches, TEAMSoccer has touched hundreds of lives in the local community since its inception in 2013.
What started out as a hopeful idea, TEAMSoccer quickly blossomed into an incredibly popular program that gives kids the total soccer experience.
“The children — when they come on in the beginning of the season — get a ball, a backpack [and] a jersey,” said Gorczyca.
“They really feel like they’re part of the team,” he said.
Eagan, who belongs to Church of the Ascension, and Gorczyca, a parishioner of Holy Spirit Church, both in Overland Park, share a passion for soccer — a passion that has been funneled into creating opportunities for children of all needs.
Their dedication to TEAMSoccer is largely motivated by their own experiences with loved ones who have special needs.
“There was a personal connection for us to try to do something like this,” said Eagan.
It all began when Gorczyca discovered a program in St. Louis called Special Needs Soccer Association (SPENSA).
From that point on, he was determined to bring something similar to Kansas City.
After teaming up with Eagan, the pair presented a plan to Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City’s head coach, who immediately embraced the idea.
Since then, TEAMSoccer has provided a welcoming place for children with all needs to grow into more confident players.
Sessions are held on Saturdays and some Sundays in April and May and again in August and September at the Overland Park Soccer Complex.
Each session lasts about an hour and is open to children ages 5-18. All the equipment is donated, making the program free for all players.
Initially capping sessions at 25 players each, TEAMSoccer now accommodates 55, and the leaders hope that number will continue to grow.
But that expansion can only come with the help of volunteers.
“You don’t have to know soccer,” said Berry.
“But if you’re comfortable with the environment and you’re willing to help, we’ll find a spot you’re comfortable at,” she added.
TEAMSoccer has regular volunteers from local high schools like St. Thomas Aquinas and Rockhurst, as well as colleges like Avila and Rockhurst in Kansas City, Missouri, and Benedictine in Atchison.
But the leaders hope to add to their ranks so they can open up more spots for kids who want to play.
“If we knew that we consistently had volunteers, we could keep growing the program,” said Eagan.
The love of the game
If you show up to TEAMSoccer, you’ll find players learning new skills, participating in various drills and scrimmaging.
You’ll see their faces light up when they get a high-five from their mentors or score a goal in front of their parents.
The upbeat energy that exudes from the field is undeniable.
It’s unique, said Berry, for the children to have “that pure joy and experience of being involved in something, but not feeling as though they’re different.”
Whether it’s working on foot skills or playing a game, mentors and coaches are there to make sure everyone is able to participate.
Each child’s needs are taken into consideration, and they all have at least one mentor to play alongside during the sessions.
“I can’t explain how great it is to see the smile on their faces when they score a goal,” said Eagan.
But it’s not only about participation; it’s also about skills.
One girl improved so much she quit the program — to join a recreational team.
“This was her jump-start,” said Berry. “She got confidence, and now she’s playing with kids from her school.”
When the players age out of the program, they sometimes continue with the program as assistant coaches, said Gorczyca.
“It’s great to see, as they progress, [they] feel like they still want to be part of the program,” he said.
A family affair
What makes TEAMSoccer even more rewarding for Berry, Gorczyca and Eagan is the fact that their family members also play key roles in the program.
Gorczyca’s wife Mary and Eagan’s wife Dorothy are both there every weekend to make sure things run smoothly.
Their children and other family members are often there to help with the sessions as well, and Berry brings her son when she can to play with the other kids.
“We all feel a part of it,” said Eagan.
The players’ families are also able to take part in the program by watching the sessions while visiting with others doing the same.
“When the parents come out, all they’re doing is giving their time, and the kids have a chance to have fun for an hour that they’re here,” said Gorczyca.
And at the end of each season, parents get to proudly look on while their son or daughter is presented with a medal.
“You call their name and they walk up and the parents are there with a camera shooting pictures of the kids,” said Eagan.
It was a moment, he said, that some never thought they’d experience.
“A mom posted something on Facebook,” Eagan said, that he found very moving. “‘I’m finally a soccer mom!’ read the post.
“‘I never thought this day would come.’”