It takes a village. Visit the Dyer Indoor Soccer Arena on a Friday night and you will see that sentiment in action.

Families, volunteers and community members all come together to make TOP Soccer, a program for children with disabilities, possible.

The soccer arena owner donates space and time to the group. The program coordinator volunteers her time and efforts to make sure everything runs smoothly. Volunteers spend their Friday nights helping each child through individualized skill programs, and the Lansing Police Department FOP and other donors help fund extras like T-shirts, medals and soccer balls.

The program is free to the families, and parents get a chance to watch from the sidelines as their child enjoys everything it means to play a team sport.

‘Small Miracles Happen’

Bob Protsman, of St. John, says his 16-year-old son has been in the TOP Soccer program for seven years, and Friday nights are the best nights of the week.

“The minute I say ‘soccer,’ he gets his shoes and he’s standing by the door 20 minutes before it’s time to leave,” Protsman says. “That’s how excited he is.”

The volunteers never give up, and this is the first year his son has started kicking the ball.

“Small miracles happen, and they happen there,” Protsman says.

The Best Experience

Nicole Bardoczi, of Dyer, runs TOP Soccer, after taking it over from a family friend about five years ago. The Lake Central High School grad played soccer in school and wanted to share her love of the sport.

“My goal for the kids is to provide an opportunity for them to take part in a team sport,” Bardoczi says. “I want to facilitate to the best of my ability for them to have the best experience.”

Since then, the number of children who participate has almost doubled.

“Last year we had anywhere from 20 to 30 kids attend weekly, with about 50 children registered,” she says.

Children come from throughout Northwest Indiana and the south suburbs.

Participants do not have to write down their disability, which can range from autism to Down syndrome. Some players are in scooters and others use walkers.

A Helping Hand

Bardoczi says she struggles with getting a consistent number of volunteers each week, which is vital to the program’s success. “Our first three weeks, we maybe had 10 volunteers max,” she says. Other times, groups such as the Illiana girls’ soccer team will volunteer and everyone can have his or her own buddy.

Along with volunteers, Bardoczi appreciates the efforts of her coaches like Robert Pilat, of Schererville, who shows up every week, encourages the kids, and teaches them to pass and trap the soccer ball. The coaches and volunteers are able to give the parents a break as well.

“I don't want them to have to pay any money,” Bardoczi says. “They have an hour to sit and enjoy watching their kids have fun.”

Protsman says the program is special because it makes soccer available to any child with any disability. “It’s there for everyone, every age, every size, every disability,” he says. “The kids who come in to volunteer have been nothing but wonderful … (They) always have smiles on their faces and the kids playing are happy. It’s heartfelt. It’s wonderful.”

Special Service

Protsman, who is a sergeant patrol paramedic with Lansing Police Department, says that as someone who serves others, it’s nice to see others also serving. “Nicole who runs it—she has a heart of gold,” he says. “She works midnights and she keeps this going.”

He does his best to support her efforts by working with Lansing FOP Lodge 218 to support the group. “We make sure she gets a check every year from us.”

Protsman encourages local high school students who need community service points to volunteer with the soccer program. “It’s the perfect place to get it done,” he says. “I wish I would have had that opportunity when I was in school.”

'Encouraging and Accepting'

Angie Burton, of Schererville, says her 7-year-old son has been involved in TOP Soccer for three years. He is the youngest of four siblings and watches them participate in their activities.

"This gives them something they can cheer him on or assist on the field as a buddy for Nicholas and other kids," she says. "My husband and I just love to see them all together having fun and being encouraging and accepting to other kids with differing abilities."

She said it is nice to have this program available in Dyer.

"Many of the disabilities fairs I've been to have touted some excellent programs, but they are in Chicago or many of the north suburbs. Between school, therapy, doctor appointments, and activities for four kids, it is just too hard to commit to something in Chicago."

She encourages other families to give the program a try.

"I didn't know how he could 'play soccer' without being able to walk. I want others to know that Nicole and her team of volunteers are amazing, they really love our kids and want to encourage them to have fun at their own ability."

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