The soccer field feels like home for 13-year-old Lily Bendell. She’s been playing for years, poised to join an elite national program with some of the best players in the country. But every Sunday last season, she took to the field for a different reason: to share the love of soccer with kids with intellectual, emotional or physical disabilities.
TOPSoccer pairs volunteers (or Buddies) like Lily with differently abled athletes who are learning the sport. The program, part of North Carolina FC Youth (NCFC Youth), aims to provide a safe, fun, supportive and inclusive environment for children at all levels.
Lily’s buddy, six-year-old Micah, loved coming to TOPSoccer every week to learn drills and run across the field.
“He was always laughing and having a great time,” Lily said, but it was equally rewarding for her.
“You don’t just talk about disability in small talk with your friends, so being around the team changed how I looked at different abilities,” she said. “It really felt like we were all on one big team. It was amazing to watch the kids grow and have fun.”
Lily’s dad, Jason Bendell, who works as an account manager at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) said the experience was great for parents as well.
“We would watch from the sidelines, and you could just see how everybody was working together in a fun, creative, happy environment,” he said. “Everyone got something out of it. I think everyone left at the end of the practice with a sense of satisfaction, like, ‘That was good. That was fun.’”
Studies show that differently abled people can face barriers to living active lives. More than one third of people with intellectual disabilities report that their physical activity is hindered by not having someone to participate with. In fact, children with disabilities are 4.5 times less likely to engage in physical activity than kids without disabilities.
At Blue Cross NC, we understand the importance of inclusion in all spaces, including in sports. That’s why we invest in NCFC Youth and the TOPSoccer program to encourage healthy lifestyles for young people in North Carolina.
“Participating in sports helps children learn social skills, teamwork, leadership skills and self-confidence and provides a fun way to live an active, healthy life,” said Cheryl Parquet, director of community engagement at Blue Cross NC. “That’s why it’s so important to make sure that all children have access to these opportunities to play, learn and grow together.”
While Lily is headed to high school next year in Raleigh and will continue to compete at a high level in soccer, she’s not moving on from the TOPSoccer program.
“I’d love to do it again,” she said. “It was such a wonderful, positive environment to be around.”
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