TOPSoccer founder makes game matter
for athletes, from age 4, with disabilities
By Judy Clabes
Jessica Birdwhistell discovered soccer as a preschooler, became a soccer standout at Henry Clay High School and went on to play the game at Denison University.
Jessie Birdwhistell founded the Central Kentucky TOPSoccer league in 2009. (Photo provided)
Along the way she made another discovery, as a student at Morton Middle School: She had a deep sensitivity for the kids in the school’s special education class, the kids with Down Syndrome, autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, and other disabilities that make a structured classroom unfriendly – and often mean they get overlooked. But when young Jessie realized the special ed kids weren’t getting Valentines’ cards, for example, she spent her own allowance to change that. Her empathy so impressed the teacher that she asked Jessie to become a peer tutor to the students.
Fast forward to Jessie Birdwhistell, doctoral candidate in school psychology at the University of Kentucky. She obtained a graduate certificate in developmental disabilities through the Human Development Institute at UK by completing extra coursework, practicum, and research. And she starts a soccer program for athletes with special needs that has grown exponentially since its founding in Lexington in 2009, providing a safe, fun environment for both physical and group activity and engaging a gang of active volunteer “Buddies.”
TOPS – The Outreach Program for Soccer – is a program of the U.S. Soccer Association. Jessie is founder and director of the Central Kentucky TOPSoccer league. The aim: to provide players ages four and older with disabilities an environment filled with meaningful learning, developmental and physical participation opportunities through the game of soccer.
Volunteers who work with the participants are called Buddies. (Photo by Judy Clabes)
The community-based soccer program emphasizes player participation and development. It is designed to improve the overall fitness, self-esteem and social skills of the athletes, taking them from “the sidelines into the game.”
“We match up every player with a Buddy, who teams up with the player to assure safety and provide help on the field and off,” said Jessie. “Our teams are assigned on the basis of ability and not age.”
Combining her passion for soccer with her interest in helping provide recreational activities for individuals with disabilities, Jessie said, “I saw TOPSoccer as a program that could provide opportunities to be part of a team, develop relationships with other athletes with disabilities and with the volunteer buddies and to increase opportunities for physical fitness.”
This season there are about 65 players across three teams ranging in age from four to early 40s. More than 70 volunteers are engaged – siblings, middle and high school students, college students, graduate students, adults, soccer players, therapists, teachers and many others.
Devoted volunteer and founder’s mom, Janice Birdwhistell (Photo by Judy Clabes)
One of those devoted volunteers is Janice Birdwhistell, Jessie’s mom. “What started as a one-season commitment in fall 2009 has turned into a five-year commitment,” Janice said. “I look forward to each season. I love getting to know our athletes, their families and our volunteers.”
The teams enjoy other activities during the year as well – bowling parties, outings to UK and Transy soccer games, pizza parties and end of season events.
The most rewarding thing for me,” Jessie says, “is seeing first-hand the fun our athletes and volunteers have each week and to see the progress they make over time.”
Practice is held on Sundays through the fall season at Masterson Park when the fields come alive with enthusiastic and intense players and their dedicated Buddies.
“We love it,” says Sophie Bigelow’s mom, Heidi. “It’s fantastic. These kids love sports.” And Sophie, 8, gets away from the “contained feeling” that dogs her, providing her with new experiences and great exercise.
Sophie has a neurodegenerative disease which means she should be progressively losing her skills, said Heidi. “Since she has started soccer she is actually making progress. She is kicking the ball independently . . .I’m so amazed and proud to see her doing this. She has even said a few words to her Buddy. She has lost most of her words so each time she says something it is wonderful and rare.”
This season there are about 65 players across three teams ranging in age from four to early 40s. (Photo by Judy Clabes)
Heidi remembers the pain of watching other kids play team sports and thinking that would never be an option for her daughter. Now, she can boast about being a soccer mom herself, complete with the van. “I love the proud, confident smiles she gives me as she puts a sticker on the board or after shooting a goal. From day one she made her happiness heard.” Heidi is happy especially that her daughter is no longer “left out.”
In the spring, practice is at Kentucky Indoor Sports. A $25 fee covers the whole season – and includes a team t-shirt, soccer shorts and one pair of soccer socks. Players furnish their own cleats/tennis shoes and shin guards.
The students may also participate in the Cincinnati TOPSoccer Tournament which is this coming weekend and is the largest gathering of TOPS players from around the country. About 28 athletes, ranging from 6 to adults will be going from Lexington’s TOPS. This special gathering will include an Olympic-style parade of athletes, a full carnival complete with games, petting zoo, inflatables, fire trucks, and most important is that each team will play two soccer games competing against other TOPSoccer teams.
“This event is a wonderful opportunity for our athletes to be recognized for their hard work and accomplishments and to enjoy the experience of the tournament with athletes with disabilities from across the region,” said Jessie, who is now also a school psychologist with the Fayette County schools.
Players over 8 may also participate in the Special Olympics.
To be a volunteer coach or with questions about sponsorship or donations, contact Jessie Birdwhistell at 859-608-4160. To be a Buddy contact Janice Birdwhistell at 859-229-7670 or
Check out TOPS’ new promo video, clickhere.
To register online clickhere.