WESTFIELD, NJ — Westfield Winners, now in its ninth season, provides a team soccer experience for 35 Westfield kids with special needs.

There are more than 100 volunteer soccer buddies ages 12-18 who work with the kids, usually two buddies per player. The Westfield Soccer Association (WSA) absorbs the full cost of the program as a community service.

The program was originally organized by Sergio Vera and Steve Aronson, who had coached their own children together, when the WSA was approached by the parent of a Westfield child with special needs.

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“We’re here to serve the entire community,” Aronson said, “so Sergio and I researched how we could best serve this segment of the population. What we discovered is what kids with special needs think of soccer may be different, but soccer is what you make it to be.”

By researching other special needs programs that existed in nearby towns and talking with teachers and parents, Vera and Aronson were able to put a plan together. They knew they would need plenty of supervision and a field that was fenced in. They wanted the kids to know that they were part of a team, and they came up with the name Westfield Winners. They reached out to older kids playing soccer through the WSA to recruit volunteers to work with the program.  A pilot program began in December 2014, with 12 participants and about 25 buddies, and has evolved over time.

“For the first few seasons, it was whatever the kids wanted to do. If that was dribbling a soccer ball alone, kicking it back and forth or even sitting in the grass, we knew they were getting something out of it,” said Vera, who currently runs the program.

Then they started working with trainer John Gardner.

“He set up stations that the kids could rotate through,” Vera said of Gardner. “He’s gotten the kids to do things we didn’t think they could do. They’re playing together with the help of their buddies.”

Gardner, who has been with the WSA since 1993, also runs the Westfield Fun of Soccer program. He works to ensure that the coaches and buddies involved are teaching the kids soccer through modeling and practice.

“We want to keep this program moving in a positive direction; we’re always looking for new participants, new volunteers and new suggestions,” said Gardner, who knows that there is also success in the program is it is now.

 “It’s clear that the participants are having fun being part of this program," he said. "But it’s also been a good experience for everyone involved.”

Westfield Winners offers a positive experience not only for the kids with special needs who are now able to participate in soccer, but their older buddies as well.

“I’ve learned that kids with special needs aren’t to be underestimated,” said volunteer Jared Greenspan. “I started volunteering because I thought it would be a good avenue to give back. I’ve been coming for three years, and I genuinely have fun and love seeing the kids have fun.”

More than 75 percent of the volunteers have been working with the Westfield Winners for two or more seasons.

"The thing that I love about it is that our volunteers often start to fulfill obligations and they’re still with us years later," Gardner said. "It speaks volumes about the quality of this program. The Westfield Winners is successful because of the kids who volunteer.”

Kevin Li has also been volunteering for a few years. He said, “I’m not only helping these kids, but I’m having fun.” Li tends to “bounce around” and enjoys the experience of working with different kids every week.

To ensure that the program runs smoothly, Vera has several experienced buddies serve as “Lead Soccer Buddies,” who arrive early to each session to set up and check the kids in. Once registration is complete, the Lead Buddies walk around to make sure things are going well and everyone is having fun.

“Soccer is important to me and I wanted to share it," said Lead Buddy and Westfield High School senior Will Rackear. “The kids who come to the program are awesome, and this is an opportunity for us to all make an impact on these kids’ lives.”

Tom Passante, whose son Ryan participates in Westfield Winners, said that Ryan loves the program.

“It teaches the kids soccer and teamwork, keeps them active, and is a great social outlet for them," he said. "The volunteers are all amazing – they make it fun and they’re very patient.”

Jared Ash’s son Benji has been on the Westfield Winners for several years.

“The spirit of support here is why Benji loves it; the volunteers match the kids at their own pace. It’s great for the kids who want to play soccer but can’t keep up with other programs because they might get easily distracted or overwhelmed. The aspect of differentiation and the patience the volunteers have for these kids allows for success,” said Ash.

Suzanne Vedder had nothing but compliments for the buddies who consistently work with her son Seamus.

“The volunteers are so engaging, and will work with the kids’ strengths," she said. "JT and Will are amazing with Seamus, and he is excited to be here. And this program helps build the empathy for the neurotypical kids.”

Kristin Williams, whose daughters Caitlin and Sophie volunteer for Westfield Winners, agreed.

“They’re learning how to interact with all different children, and it’s an opportunity for them to share their love for soccer,” Williams said.

Tina Valentine’s son Sam has been a part of Westfield Winners since its inception. He started in the town’s Fun of Soccer program, but Valentine says it just wasn’t a good fit for Sam, and she was happy to enroll him in Westfield Winners.

“This is perfect for him and it gives him confidence,” Valentine said.

Sam, who is 9, agreed.

“Westfield Winners is a really, really, really awesome experience," he said. "I like working with all the different people, and learning offense and defense, but playing goalie is my favorite.”

To learn more about Westfield Winners, click here to visit their website