Tillie’s Touch offers children life lessons on and off the soccer field

Dale Johnson, founder of Tillie’s Touch, tears up when he speaks about how the organization came to be.

It’s was a weekend morning and Johnson was settling into his favorite recliner when an ESPN feature on Nick Madaras captured his undivided attention. Madaras was killed by an IED while serving in Iraq on September 3, 2006. While overseas, Nick asked his parents to send him a few soccer balls to share with the children in Baqubah. Unfortunately, his creative idea never came to be.

Soon after his death, Nick’s parents received a phone call from a generous man who wanted to continue Nick’s legacy and passion for soccer. Since its inception, the Kick for Nick Foundation has distributed more than 50,000 soccer balls to underprivileged children in more than 25 countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Bhutan, Guatemala and Columbia.

It was there and then that Johnson was inspired to start something similar for youth right here in the Central New York community. Two years later, Tillie’s Touch – named after his daughter – was born.

The organization assists in making a child’s dream of playing a sport possible by providing sports equipment to any child whose family is unable to do so. It also offers playing opportunities, school supplies and tutoring to help the youth succeed. Johnson considers it “leveling the playing field.”

“We work with the kids non-stop, which many travel clubs don’t do,” Johnson said. Johnson and his team are with the kids between games, connect them to the equipment they need and provide all drinks and snacks on their outings. They pick them up and drop them off, too.

Aside from the many travel soccer programs that Johnson, his board and volunteers run, it’s the students’ academics that rise to the top of their priority list.

“When we find out that there is a need – especially with certain subjects – we get tutoring,” Johnson said.

Joyce Suslovic oversees the organization’s study program as the Director of Academics. With over 39 years of experience in the education field, Suslovic has been a mainstay in the Syracuse City School District. As a social studies teacher at Henninger High School, she has also worked tirelessly as an advocate to get busing for city school students.

Tillie’s Touch also enjoys a close working relationship with the Le Moyne College women’s soccer team. Many of Le Moyne’s student-athletes are education majors and volunteer their time tutoring and mentoring the children that come through the organization.

“I felt like we could do more,” Johnson said. “If we worked hard, we could have them graduate high school and get them into college. What I have found over the years is that these kids just want the opportunity to play soccer and get out of their house. They really want to learn.”

A Community Foundation grant, funded by the Martha Fund, helped Tillie’s Touch purchase a second van – something that was sorely needed by the organization to not only transport more children, but enhance their experience. The Martha Fund was established by Ruth Blumberg in memory of her daughter, Martha, to support children’s programs, health services and learning activities in Central New York.

“The van has been a huge help,” Johnson said. “We knew we needed a more reliable vehicle and with us growing as much as we have, we knew that if we had a second van, we could double our capacity.”

The van addition has helped Tillie’s Touch to double its travel numbersIt will be used to visit soccer tournaments in Binghamton, Rochester and areas all around Central New York.

On average, Tillie’s Touch is able to transport 50 kids to and from soccer games, practice, tutoring sessions and home between three and four times a week during the months of November through July. The organization reaches roughly 1,200-1,500 children a year.

To Johnson, Tillie’s Touch is now a family. Many of his former players come back, coach, and spread tidbits of knowledge and advice.

“We ask the kids, especially our alumni, to come back,” Johnson said. “The soccer field is where these kids feel at ease,” Johnson said. “If we can accomplish that, then we have done our job.”

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