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Franklin - Local Town Pages

TOPSoccer: A Special Program for Kids with Special Needs

TOPS Director John Rainone and his daughter Kelsie, with TOPS athlete Jonathan Love.

By Grace Allen
It’s a typical sight on a Sunday morning: a soccer field brimming with activity while parents cheer from the sidelines. For families who have kids with disabilities, that experience once might have seemed out of reach. TOPSoccer is changing all that.
The Outreach Program for Soccer, or TOPSoccer, was developed by US Youth Soccer for children and youth from ages 4 to 26 with physical and/or mental disabilities. The participants are paired with volunteers who teach them how to play soccer in a safe and fun way.
A local TOPS chapter has been operating in Norfolk since 2011, with participants from several surrounding communities. Starting in the spring, the program will move to King Philip High School in Wrentham, which is offering the field for free so there will be no cost for families.
John Rainone, the director of the TOPS program, says the move to the high school is significant because the turf field will make it easier for kids with disabilities to play, without the worry of uneven terrain.  “Our TOPS program has some of the highest numbers in the state,” explained Rainone. “We have multiple kids in wheelchairs, multiple kids on crutches and leg braces, and a couple that are legally blind. The turf field will make the program even more inclusive.”
Rainone has been involved with the Norfolk-based TOPS chapter since its start, and in 2020 became its director. He runs the program with the help of his daughter, Kelsie, who began volunteering with TOPS when she was in 6th grade.
According to Rainone, the primary goal of TOPS is to provide a fun, social outlet for special needs kids while learning to play soccer. But another, equally laudable goal, is to provide the parents of these kids with the opportunity to just sit and watch while volunteers take over.
“Parents can relax, knowing their child is safe, having fun, and involved in a sport in a way they probably didn’t think would ever be possible,” said Rainone.
Mark and Erin Botelho’s son, Leo, has multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy, and is legally blind. Leo has participated in the TOPS program for twelve years, beginning at the age of 3. He started out with a walker but now uses leg braces and walks independently. He enjoys playing goalie, says his mother.
“The volunteers from King Philip are amazing and kind students,” said Botelho. “We are thankful our son has found a place where he is welcome and expected only to be himself.”
Another parent, Lauren Love, says TOPS has provided her son Jonathan with the opportunity to practice the fundamentals of soccer at a level appropriate for him. Love says her son has participated in TOPS for close to ten years, and calls the experience rewarding for everyone involved in the program: players, parents, and volunteers.
“It’s provided Jonathan with a wonderful social experience, and has given us a sense of community,” said Love. “It has allowed me to meet and share information with other parents who experience both the joys and the struggles of having a child with special needs.”
Love says that another son, Ryan, plays soccer for King Philip High School, and this year is one of the TOPS volunteers who works specifically with Jonathan.
“It’s heartwarming to witness how much they are learning from each other,” she said.
Kayla Swedits is yet another parent who speaks highly of the TOPS program. Her 7-year-old daughter Riley has a rare genetic disorder and subsequent developmental delays. An attempt to play in her town’s recreational soccer program was disheartening for Riley.
“We tried TOPS and it was a completely different feel,” said Swedits. “The volunteers meet her where she is, skill-wise. Riley loves it and I get to sit back and watch her play with a big smile on her face.”
While anyone can volunteer with the program, the biggest group of volunteers are high school athletes, primarily from King Philip. The boys soccer team has been the backbone of the program, especially during the height of COVID, but this year all the fall sports teams have stepped up to help, says Gwen Prater, president of the King Philip Soccer Association (KPSA), which offers the local TOPS program. She expects all the spring sports teams also to volunteer when the program moves to the high school in 2024.
“The volunteers might even be getting more out of the program than the individuals playing in TOPS,” says Prater.
Kelsie Rainone, now 24, agreed that the volunteers have embraced the program, learning along the way that the participants, even the kids with severe special needs, are typical kids too, with similar likes and dislikes as the volunteers.
“When I first started volunteering, some of the TOPS kids were my age,” Kelsie said. “And they were doing the same things I was. I play soccer, they’re playing soccer. Yes, they play a bit differently but they’re still doing the same things I’m doing.”

Prater says KPSA families have made financial donations to the TOPS program, which will enable the organization to get new equipment, including specialty balls, uniforms, and medals for the end of the season. KPSA also funds an ice cream truck for the last day of the session.
TOPS Director Rainone, who sits on the board of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association and serves as liaison for the state’s 27 TOPS programs, hopes to grow the program in new directions. He’d like to have enough participants so they can hold real scrimmages each week. This past fall session, he invited the Norfolk, Plainville, and Wrentham Police resource officers and their community resource dogs to a TOPS session, enriching the experience even more for the kids. Rainone also envisions having therapists in the program, working with the volunteers to better serve the TOPS athletes, and also engaging with the parents on the sidelines.
“John is thinking big,” said Prater. “With Kelsie at his side, he has successfully run this program and KPSA has done everything we can to support them. Every week I’ve watched them greet each TOPS player with a huge smile, and I literally find myself wiping tears away as I watch the kids play. It’s clear they’ve created more than a rec program. This is a community, and we want this resource to continue to grow and serve even more special needs families in the area.”
Registration has opened for the spring session, which will run on Sunday mornings from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., starting on April 21, 2024 until June 2. There are no restrictions regardless of physical or mental disability. Participants from area towns are welcome, and volunteers are always needed.
Visit for more information and to register for the spring session. Email [email protected] with any questions.
To help support the TOPS program, which will need more specialty equipment and nets, donations can be made via Venmo: @kp-soccer with TOPS in the memo line.