It’s a regular Monday evening at Swinborne Meadows Park in Mississauga, and the players in the Panther Stars program have taken to the field to play soccer. The practice is like any other, with players lining up in the box to take shots on net, dribbling through cones, and even having a scrimmage at the end. But while the appearance of the practice may be ordinary, the players who take part in it are special. 

This Monday evening spot at Swinbourne has been reserved for the special needs children and adults who have been the focus of Panthers Stars for nearly a decade. The program was founded by Ken Howe, a former employee of North Mississauga Soccer Club (NMSC) who noticed a lack of programs for people with intellectual and physical disabilities in the then-nearly 20-year-old soccer club. Since finding this program, there is a thriving indoor program, which operates in the fall, as well as their outdoor program in spring and summer.  

For many of the parents and children who take part, the predictability and fun-oriented nature of each Monday has meant that they have a time of the week where they can have fun. Each session usually takes the form of a practice, where they begin with stretching, go on to drills and then scrimmage. 

“It’s been this way since I got here,” said Panther Stars head coach Kevin Smith. “We find that if we try to make too many major changes it doesn’t work out how we intend, so we like to make minor changes and keep it consistent.”

But for many of these players, like 19-year-old Amber Duhamel and 12-year-old Jared Schnick, who both have Down’s syndrome, they have seen even greater benefits than just having something to do by participating in the program. Jared’s mother Bernice has noticed a litany of benefits since her son joined the program.

“He likes to keep active,” she said. “He’s made friends and he’s even lost some weight, which is a good thing.”

Amber’s mother Elizabeth emphasized the social benefits gained from this program, talking about memories like Jared singing at the end-of-year social. As for her own daughter, who has been in the program for five years, one of the advantages of the model they have is that parents generally have the same interest, leading to a harmony that often doesn’t exist in more competitive forms of soccer.

“I’ve never seen any conflict,” she said. 

On top of this, Amber sums up the appeal of the program quite succinctly.

“It’s fun,” she said.

The Panther Stars program caters to people aged five to over 30.