As the youngest of four kids in a soccer-loving family, eight-year-old Kufre Akpan was used to watching from the sidelines as his teenage sisters took the pitch.
But through Suburban Football Club’s inclusive We All Play program, Kufre, who has Down syndrome and autism and uses an assistive device to communicate, is adding highlights of his own to the family lore.
“We got his first goal on video,” says Kufre’s mom, Angela Akpan. “When our club started this program, we figured it was the perfect fit for our son.”
Suburban FC was formed in 2019 through the merger of four clubs — Bedford, East Hants, Sackville, and Scotia. As leaders at the new club took stock of gaps in their programming, it became clear they needed to be more accessible for people living with physical and intellectual disabilities, says Jessie Burgins, who moved from Ottawa to take on the executive director role.
“We wanted to be able to offer something for every single type of player there could be,” he says.
While they discussed how to launch an inclusive program, two more things became clear: “We’re going to throw all our resources at it,” Burgins says. “And we need to make it free.”
With those principles in mind, Suburban reached out to parents of kids living with disabilities and organizations like Autism Nova Scotia to help shape their approach. Burgins also called on Sam Charron, whom he coached in Ottawa and who happens to be a two-time Canada Soccer para player of the year.
“It was great to have (Sam) come, to show the players, even if you have a disability of some sort, you’re still able to play in whatever capacity you want to,” Burgins says.
The club takes its “all hands on deck” approach seriously. Burgins attends every session and other coaches and teams regularly volunteer.
That’s one of the aspects Angela Akpan enjoys most. With her husband pitching in and her daughters volunteering sometimes, We All Play becomes a family affair. She looks back fondly on a session where an under-15 boys team came out to help.
“You had kids Kufre’s age and Special Olympians all on the same turf, and this group of U15 boys who were laughing and playing around, bringing that whole sense of awareness to kids who don’t necessarily have Kufres in their life,” she says.
Beyond the benefits of recreation for kids like her son, bringing all ages and abilities together on the pitch shows the value of genuine inclusion, Akpan says.
“This is our community. Helping our community understand our son better, that’s a golden opportunity. It’s not just Kufre who benefits, it’s the whole community.”
We All Play has won kudos for its approach, including a Sport Makes A Difference Award at the Support4Sport Awards on May 28. The program runs every two weeks in the summer, and Burgins says Suburban wants to keep finding ways to make it stronger.
For other clubs and associations wanting to launch accessible programs, he has simple advice: do your homework, but don’t be afraid to dive in.
“I’m sure a lot of clubs want to do it but struggle with how to get started,” he says. “We said to ourselves, ‘Nothing gets done until you just decide to do it.’ We decided we needed to do this.”
Find out more about We ALL Play at suburbanfc.ca.