It began with a question. Should kids with disabilities, who so often have other doors closed to them in life, have the opportunity to play soccer?
The answer, of course, was yes. So Linda Kautz of Snohomish and a group of supporters set about making it happen.
That was back in 1999, and since then TOPSoccer of Snohomish has blossomed into multiple teams playing in fall indoor and spring outdoor seasons. The youngest players are preschoolers, most are in elementary to high school, and they have a range of physical, intellectual and sensory disabilities that do nothing to diminish their love for the game.
The program’s foremost goal is that these kids “have fun,” Kautz said. “I also want them to enjoy being part of a team. I want them to enjoy exercise. I want them to feel successful. And I want them to know that they have a community around them that supports them.”
Non-profit organizations such as TOPSoccer can prosper only if people pitch in, and that is certainly the case in Snohomish. There are adult volunteers and student volunteers, with the latter often serving as buddy mentors for the players. But behind it all is Kautz, who helped get the program off the ground years ago and today serves as a coach, the volunteer coordinator and the overall director.
Her contributions have not gone unnoticed. US Youth Soccer, which oversees programs for kids across the country, has named Kautz one of four regional finalists for the 2016 TOPSoccer Coach of the Year award. She will be in Los Angeles on Friday when the national winner is announced, with the event being part of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention.
The honor “is a nice pat on the back,” Kautz said. “But it’s also recognition for the program itself, which means more to me.”
Kristi Turner, a coach in the program who has worked closely with Kautz for the past six years, said the award “is well deserved.” What Kautz does for the players, she went on, “is beyond words. This program wouldn’t exist without her. She coordinates the whole thing in the Snohomish area, and the amount of time she gives is incredible.”
Eileen Cooper of Everett, whose 14-year-old son, Caleb, and 11-year-old daughter, Rachel, are in TOPSoccer of Snohomish, said, “The program wouldn’t be the program without her — the passion she has for the kids and for seeing them succeed. She knows all the kids by their names and they just love her.”
“Her dedication, her skills and her insights are amazing,” said John Hansen of Mill Creek, who has a 14-year-old daughter named Hazel in the program. “There couldn’t be a better person for the job.”
Such lavish praise makes Kautz squirm, but her eyes light up when she discusses TOPSoccer’s triumphs. Beginning kids sometimes resist, and for some “even getting on a pair of soccer shoes is a struggle,” she said. Others have mobility issues, with a few needing walkers or even wheelchairs to compete. Still others have sensory disabilities and struggle in group situations, or in noisy and chaotic situations, which is essentially every soccer game.
“It can be very, very distressing in some ways,” Kautz said, “and yet our kids learn to embrace that environment and are able to participate.”
But whatever the disability, and no matter the severity, “we haven’t ever turned anyone away,” she said.
It can be hard for kids with disabilities “to find sports that are inclusive,” Cooper said. “But (TOPSoccer) has given my two kids an opportunity to learn the sport, get some physical activity and to have social interaction with their peers. And my kids just love it. It’s never been like in competitive sports where they felt they weren’t good enough. My daughter will tell people, ‘I’m really good at soccer.’ It’s given her more self-confidence with her social skills, knowing she is good at something.”
His daughter’s participation in TOPSoccer, Hansen said, has been the opportunity “to get some wins for somebody who doesn’t really have a lot of wins (in her life). … This is something she can count on. It’s definitely something she looks forward to. And the confidence (she gains) then spills over to her other activities and at school.”
Stories like this are what make Kautz’s commitment to TOPSoccer so meaningful and satisfying. There is no monetary reward for the many hours she puts in, “but I get to play with these great kids and to be a part of something that gives them (benefits) they might not have otherwise,” she said.
Since she is nearing retirement age, she wonders how long she will continue. But for now, she said, “I’m still going strong. I’m still loving it. It’s great fun.”