Bellarmine Prep TOPSoccer Program Turns Students Into Mentors
Nathan Heath was like any other high schooler, attending classes at Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep, playing sports and hanging out with friends after school. Until one day, a friend mentioned that he could help change kids lives by contributing just one hour of his time each day.
That was when Nathan Heath became a TOPSoccer Buddy.
The Outreach Program for Soccer, TOPSoccer is a Washington Youth Soccer program for players 4 years of age and older who have developmental and/or physical disabilities. The program is based on skill level, not age, and participants include players, coaches and buddies – volunteers who are paired with each player to assist with the game.
Bellarmine Prep’s Associated Student Body (ASB) program had started what is believed to be the first student-organized TOPSoccer Buddy program in the state, and was looking for student volunteers.
Within weeks, Heath was hooked.
“At the end of my second term, a boy that I had been working with for a few weeks gave me a card and a letter with an attached picture of me and him. In his letter, he wrote that he was thankful that I played soccer with him,” Heath recalls. “[He] changed my life, because I hadn’t realized the impact I was making.”
Heath, now 17, has continued to work with Bellarmine’s TOPSoccer program. So has 10-year-old Gavin, perhaps the first player-turned-buddy in Washington TOPSoccer history.
Gavin, who was diagnosed autistic at a young age, first joined the program as a player at age 5, inspired by his big sister, who played with a local club team in Tacoma. He did so well in the program as a player and teammate -- both by picking up ball skills and technique, and integrating with other kids of various disabilities -- that his coaches and parents were inspired to place him on a recreational team in the Nortac Soccer Club, where he has continued to have success.
Recently, Gavin returned to Bellarmine’s TOPSoccer program — this time, as a buddy, helping other kids like himself find similar joy in the game of soccer.
“I really like soccer, and it has helped me learn new skills,” Gavin says. “I learned how to run and play with others, and really liked the tournaments and medals. Now that I’m older and more patient…I thought it would be nice to help other kids learn about soccer. It was hard for me, because I have autism, but it’s good for me and I try my best. I think I can be a fun buddy, too.”
Gavin specifically credits Bellarmine Prep principal Chris Gavin and TOPSoccer chair Marty Torres for encouraging him and welcoming him to the program. Gavin’s mom, Amy Barrett Carr, says that support, and the TOPSoccer program, has made an immeasurable impact on her special-needs child.
“Without the positive TOPSoccer experiences in his early years and his adoration for ‘Miss Marty,’ Gavin would likely have never played a team sport, or any sport,” Carr says. “We owe so much to Marty Torres for running this exceptional program and providing a safe, positive environment.”
To learn more about starting a TOPSoccer program in your area, visit the TOPSoccer page at Washington Youth Soccer.org.