Sophomore rewarded for volunteer work with MSI’s Special Olympics TOPSoccer Program
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When sophomore Ben Katz steps onto the Whitman soccer field, he is sporting a black jersey, directing his team as the goalie. But when Katz steps onto the local park’s field, he plays another position: a volunteer at Montgomery Soccer Inc.’s (MSI) Special Olympics TOPSoccer program.
A branch of the Special Olympics Maryland, MSI’s TOPSoccer program is designed to provide disabled individuals ages 3-21 a chance to participate in athletics; participants meet every Sunday in the fall to learn how to play soccer.
“MSI’s mission is to have ‘a soccer program for every child’ and the TOPSoccer program (The Outreach Programs for Soccer) is the way to make soccer possible for children with special needs,” TOPSoccer Director Pam Yerg said.
This January, Katz received the MSI TOPSoccer Program for Children with Special Needs Volunteer of the Year Award.
Katz began volunteering at TOPSoccer in middle school with the intention of earning SSL hours and completing his Bar-Mitzvah project. As a result of his project, he donated over 200 soccer balls to TOPSoccer and children abroad. But once Katz completed his hours and finished his project, he wasn’t ready to stop.
Ben connects very well with the athletes and especially has won the hearts of some specific ones.— TOPSoccer director Pam Yerg
“I got really into it and I kept coming,” Katz said. “Then I joined Special Olympics Basketball and in ninth grade I joined Special Olympics Softball and became a coach of a basketball team and a director at TOPSoccer.”
For Katz, it became less about the SSL hours and more about the relationships he formed with his players.
“I love it, seeing their faces when they learn and are happy and having fun,” Katz said. “They’re just normal kids. They’re absolutely amazing. I love it so much. It’s an amazing program.”
After working with Special Olympics for five years this year, Katz assumed a leadership role: he now trains other young volunteers to work effectively with the kids.
“The problem with a lot of [new] volunteers, I think, is that they’re not comfortable with the kids since they don’t know how to act around them,” Katz said. “So, this year my job has also been to show them how to act with the kids, and it’s very fun to do that, too.”
Katz’s enthusiasm set him apart from other volunteers, which made the decision-making process for the award simple, MSI chair Gary Wheeler said.
“Every year, there are a handful of middle or high school age kids who have fallen in love with the program. They sort of distinguish themselves pretty quickly,” Wheeler said. “The characteristics that make a person a good candidate for this award are reliability, being able to communicate well and connect with young kids who are struggling with whatever their special need might be.”
Wheeler and Yerg work together to consider all of the work the volunteers have completed and select the award recipient.
“Ben is a very kind and compassionate young man,” Yerg said. “He connects very well with the athletes and especially has won the hearts of some specific ones.”
For Katz, the award is an incredible honor, but the connections with the kids are even more valuable.
“They’re just the same as everybody else, just with one small handicap,” Katz said. “They just want to have fun like every other kid.”