Troy and Michele Memis created Harrison Township TOPSports to help bridge the gap between “typical” kids and those living with disabilities.
By KRYSTAL NURSE
Troy and Michele Memis, husband and wife, started Harrison Township TOP Sports seven years ago after their 8-year-old son, JT (now 15 years old), aged out of a soccer program. Now, with 80 volunteers and more than 60 athletes who are living with disabilities, the Memis family sees the impact the nonprofit has had on the community.
“TOP Sports stands for The Outreach Program for Sports, so we try to give the kids with special needs an outreach, meaning time, with the typical kids,” said Troy. “At the same time, the parents get to hang out on the sidelines and just be, which is rare.”
The program provides kids, ages 4 to 18, with disabilities the chance to play soccer, basketball and baseball (girls have the additional option to do cheerleading). It’s a free all-inclusive program designed to teach “normal” kids how to help others who are not like them feel more accepted in society.
“We have around 60 athletes with varying special needs,” said Troy. “We have kids in powered and manual wheelchairs, walkers, we have autism, Down syndrome, Pitt-Hopkins and many others. Each day, and each time, we get a kid with a new disability, we learn about it.”
Kids who have disabilities are often referred to as “athletes,” and those who volunteer are called “buddies” because they quickly become friends with the kids and teach them life lessons.
Riley Ferguson, a senior at Clearview Regional High School, the Memises said, is one of the volunteers in the program, since 2015, who has formed a special bond with JT and the other athletes. During the high school’s pep rally on Sept. 21, Riley pulled JT from the stands, out onto the football field.
“Riley, being a volunteer in our program, came up to JT and said to his teacher ‘do you mind if I bring JT down and have him bring the flag out with us,’” said Troy. “She said that it was perfectly fine.”
Troy added that what Riley did enforces what he teaches in the program: create a ripple effect in the community. He said Riley could have chosen to stay with his friends, but instead wanted JT to join in on the fun.
“Part of what we do with TOP Sports is we teach our kids with special needs how to assimilate and get along with kids, but we also teach ‘typical’ kids how to accept and understand kids with special needs so when they go into school, they talk to them there, or at the mall,” said Troy.
“It gives you hope that there will be people in the world that will look out for your child and treat your child just like any other kid,” added Michele.
The two also manage a restaurant in Mullica Hill called Holy Tomato Too where they hire kids with special needs and provide them with on-the-job skills, which teaches their customers about what people with disabilities can do.
The Mantua family said they have nothing but great things to say about Riley’s, and his older brother Ryan’s, impact on the organization and what they deliver to the athletes within it.
“Riley is one of the kids,” said Troy. “He’s a buddy. He’s in there having fun all the time. He makes himself relatable. That takes not just a special skill, but a special love. It takes a special heart to put yourself there.”
Michele said while some kids do sign up for the volunteer hours, many of them return year after year to spend quality time with the athletes.
Some higher-functioning athletes will help coach in some sports or participate in the activity stations. The organization, the Memises said, also provides scholarship opportunities to buddies and athletes alike.
“We offer scholarships to our volunteer buddies — four scholarships for seniors,” said Troy. “They have to write an essay on how TOP Sports has changed their lives and how they’re going to use it in the future.”
A scholarship fund, called the Mikey Ramos Memorial Scholarship Fund, named after one of their athletes who passed away, is available for their athletes who wish to pursue higher education.
As far as the future of the organization, Michele said they will need to start thinking about a part two since a large portion of their athletes, including JT, will age out.
Parents seeking to sign their kid up, or high school students looking to volunteer, can find out more information about Harrison Township TOP Sports by visiting their Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/HarrisonTwpTopSports.