Soccer program for special-needs youth is thriving in Valley Stream

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“Hi, coach!”

The greeting startled Azzedine Layachi, who coaches a program for athletes with special-needs in Valley Stream.

Six-year-old Ajani initially was nonverbal and mostly just ran across the field and spun around, according to Layachi. Little by little, Ajani became more expressive. “Then, one day … he came out of nowhere, held my hand and started pulling me away,” Layachi said. “His parents — who were tagging along — explained that he finally had started taking a shot at the goalie but wanted me, the coach, to witness his accomplishment.” Now Ajani is poised enough to greet his coach.

Layachi started the Valley Stream chapter of The Outreach Program for Soccer, or TOPSoccer, in 2014. The program launched in 1978, and there are now 26 soccer clubs across Long Island. The free program, open to children ages 4 to 19 regardless of residency, provides each child with a soccer ball, a uniform and a T-shirt, as well as supplemental insurance in case of injury.

Layachi also coaches two travel teams. He recruits young volunteers to assist him in mentoring athletes with special needs. “I knew he was going to be an amazing coach … the first time I spoke to him,” said Dara Ehrlich. “I said to my husband, ‘This is gonna be good for Jake.’ And it has been.”

Jake Ehrlich, 9, and Layachi’s son Zakarya, 11, are both on the autism spectrum.

Layachi said that in his coaching, the process is fundamentally the same whether the athlete has special needs or not. Players are children who need to be guided, coached and encouraged ­— and they need to have fun, he said. However, in coaching athletes with special needs, he said, being emotionally intelligent is important.

“Since most of the children we have in the TOPS program are mentally disabled, it helps to be a little bit educated on mental disabilities, such as autism and its entire spectrum,” Layachi explained. “This knowledge helps in terms of how to approach these children, how to take into account their sensory issues, how to handle tantrums and upsets, and how to create opportunities for each to play and have fun according to his or her ability and desire.”

Program participants meet most Saturday afternoons at the Brooklyn Avenue Elementary School during the fall, winter and spring. Layachi and volunteers lead the athletes in a series of drills and end each session with a small scrimmage.

“I know what the parents of kids with special needs may feel about their child’s condition and the societal stigma attached to it,” Layachi said. “I also know that they tend to be overprotective of their kid — who they think may harm him or herself, or may be harmed by others.”

Layachi said that, in his experience, those fears are often quelled once parents realize that the program is tailored to children with disabilities. There is no particular regimen or commitment required — the schedule is inherently flexible. Some weeks, the sessions are lightly attended, while others are not.

The Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association, a branch of the United States Soccer Federation and United States Youth Soccer, named Layachi the 2016 Coach of the Year for his service to the Valley Stream soccer community at a ceremony on Dec. 4. As the program continues to grow, he said he hopes to recruit more high school volunteers and possibly even create age divisions and play against other towns and states.

David Weistmeier said that to his son, Benjamin, 12, the soccer program is a familiar routine now, and that “he can’t wait for Saturday.”

High school students may get service credit for volunteering with the TOPSoccer program. All interested parents or volunteers can contact TOPSoccer Commissioner, Azzedine Layachi at layachia@gmail.com.