Charleston Battery Soccer Club’s engagement director Melissa Britton is a woman on a mission –– a mission to expand a growing “Buddy Soccer” program for children with special needs, from its inaugural Summerville season to a second season on Daniel Island.
The Buddy Soccer program currently draws dozens of volunteers age 12 and above from the Charleston Battery Soccer Club, to serve as “playing buddies” for 15-20 kids with special needs yearning to play the sport competitively.
Although their 2018 season from early September to mid-November is now in the history books, Britton and a crew of three are finalizing details for another mid-February to mid-April Buddy Soccer season at MUSC Health Stadium here on Daniel Island.
Each Buddy Soccer season lasts approximately eight weeks. Games are held on Sunday afternoons, from 2 p.m. to approximately 3:15 p.m. Each game is mild, informal, and modified to fit each player. Buddies make sure everyone is active and involved in the game. In the program’s 20 years, Buddy Soccer has never turned a single player away.
There are absolutely no costs to participants. Players need only their own cleats, socks, and shorts. Sponsored uniform jerseys, spirit gear, and refreshments are provided.
Britton explained how the Buddy Soccer program has expanded so fast, thanks to Craig Brady, a Charleston-area businessman who’s worked for over 20 years with children who have special needs as soccer players.
“We are all really standing on the shoulders of Craig Brady’s efforts and experience,” Britton said. “Thanks to a growing roster of five volunteer leaders and improving field space availability, Buddy Soccer playing time is beginning to expand.”
“There are also many families with children who have special needs in the Mount Pleasant, Cainhoy, and East of Cooper area,” she continued. “Many of our own CBSC players live and commute to MUSC Health Stadium on the island all year long, to play youth matches or attend professional Charleston Battery events. Our primary resource requirements are volunteers’ time and field space, which are hard to come by in Charleston these days.”
The good news is that 14 more acres of Daniel Island field space are being developed, in addition to the lacrosse fields’ project, which means five new soccer fields are also in the works, noted Britton. One of her goals is to install at least one modern artificial turf field, which is virtually indestructible and eliminates weather, rain, and “mud soup” cancellations.
Since soccer is not a contact sport, per se, the game can be highly inclusive for boys and girls at any age. All that’s required is that each participant has an understanding of soccer, its rules, and the ability to play the game physically and rationally.
On-field volunteers must be members of the Charleston Battery Soccer Club, for insurance and liability reasons. Volunteers should be aged 12 or older and have a passion for working with kids with special needs. To be clear, no professional Charleston Battery players are involved in the Buddy Soccer program, nor is this an autograph session. It’s a workout! Heartfelt CBSC players take the time to volunteer on Sundays after church to challenge their buddies to engage in soccer, as it should be played.
Children and adolescents with special needs often lack social interactions, routine access to peers and social groups, and especially field sports and teams, explained Britton. Due to isolation and often home-bound lifestyles, children with special needs require more physical fitness, deliberate social interactions, and the excitement of playing in a scheduled match every week, just like everybody else.
“Buddy Soccer rules are the same for everyone, and the tone on the field is competitive,” said Britton. “There is no coddling. Everyone is treated the same, and coached just like everyone else… our participants learn the same lessons and must maintain a team-oriented attitude.”
Many parents and caregivers often ask: “How are Buddy Soccer programs different from the Special Olympics?”
“Special Olympics athletes typically must have an intellectual disability (ID),” noted Britton. “Our Buddy Soccer program is open to anyone from age five to 20 who may have any special need whatsoever, since we are 100 percent all about inclusivity and never turning any participants away.”
Britton explained her personal passions behind the Buddy Soccer program, as learned from Craig Brady.
“From the perspective of children with special needs, however acute they may be, these kids are always treated differently, every day of their lives. They must ride on a different bus, or go to a special class or school, and they typically ‘don’t get invited to the party’ or to join the team the way other children and teenagers do. Together with our CBSC volunteers, Buddy Soccer participants are treated the same as everyone else.”
According to Britton, their annual Sunday afternoon program in Summerville and on Daniel Island (Spring 2019) requires less than $5,000 per year in overall costs and expenses, which is raised through CBSC generosity, local special needs sponsors, and private donors.
When asked about further Buddy Soccer expansion plans, Britton explained enthusiastically how they “plan to stay aligned with the Charleston Battery Soccer Club in perpetuity, so anywhere in Charleston we are able to organize Sunday volunteers and secure Sunday afternoon field space (for an hour or two), we will do our best to place a Buddy Soccer season there during the fall and spring.”
For more information, to enroll your special needs child, or to become a volunteer or sponsor, simply e-mail BuddySoccer@CHSBatterySC.com with your name, contact information, age range, and level of experience with the sport of soccer.
Daniel Island resident Baron Christopher Hanson is the principal and lead strategist at Baron Christopher Creative & RedBaron Consulting. Hanson has written for Harvard Business Review, SmartBrief, and The Daniel Island News. Contact him at Baron@RedBaronUSA.com.