Liberty athletes join forces with Athletes For Kids

Trevor Sytsma, Managing Editor

Thirteen years ago, a young Sammamish third-grader was struggling. A boy with a difficult case of Tourette’s Syndrome, he suffered from involuntary spasms of his head, body, and limbs, and outbursts of inappropriate language. He had been a very popular kid before, but his symptoms now made him an outcast among the other kids his age. He fell into a bout of loneliness and depression, and, alienated from his classmates, his self-esteem took a severe blow.

Concerned, his family reached out to Skyline’s athletic director in 2001 and asked if any football players would be interested in spending time with their son. Their thought was that if their son’s classmates saw him with a popular athlete in the community, they would possibly be more accepting of him.

Simi Reynolds, the star of Skyline’s football team, volunteered. Simi and the boy began meeting regularly in 2001, and as the pair spent more and more time together, his parents detected a remarkable change in their son. His happiness grew, and along with it, his confidence. Realizing they had something to share with the special needs community, the parents and Simi created the Athletes For Kids (AFK) program at Skyline, which recruited and trained high school athletes to mentor kids with special needs.

“Athletes For Kids serves primarily elementary and middle school children who have developmental, physical, or emotional disabilities. Our goal is to help each child develop a true social connection with a mentor,” AFK executive director Teresa Bretl said. “Many of the children we serve are not readily accepted by their peers because of their disability and have difficulty making friends. Our mentoring program teaches and models interpersonal skills that help them to succeed and be happy in life.”

AFK now has chapters at Skyline, Issaquah, Overlake, Redmond, Eastlake, Eastside Catholic, and Liberty High Schools, with over 100 mentors currently involved. The chapter at Liberty was established in 2006, and has had 64 mentors in the program since. Although a major goal of AFK is to boost the self-esteem of special needs kids, the program aims to effect change in the mentors’ high schools as well.

“By participating as mentors in Athletes For Kids, we give teens the chance to show their peers that differences in people are something to be embraced, not avoided,” Bretl said. “We want our mentors to show that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect because we all have special gifts to offer in life.”

Current Liberty mentors include seniors Colin Larson, Sam Dodt, Shaniah Adriano, and Tara Johnson, and juniors Anthony Tran, Conner Small, Drew Hall, Dylan Sherman, Jacob Winter, Mackenna Briggs, Russell Boston, Sara Norwood, Trevor Sytsma, and Sydney Hopper. After being interviewed, screened, and trained, all fourteen were matched, or are in the process of being matched, with a special needs child, called a “buddy”, who they spend time with every month.

“My buddy is in fifth grade. He has anxiety and trauma, and we’ve been matched for a year, about since last March,” Winter said. “When I first starting going, he’d be kind of nervous when I got there and he’d warm up to me eventually. But now when I go over I feel like he’s always just really happy to see me. I think that having an older friend is a really positive influence for him and it makes him feel cooler.”

The purpose of each mentor is not to be a disciplinarian, a tutor, a therapist, or a parent, but someone who will just hang out, talk, and have fun with a buddy. Oftentimes, mentors and their buddies form lifelong friendships that persist even after the mentor has graduated.

“My buddy is an eighth grade girl. She has ADHD and developmental delays, and ever since we started driving around together she always wants to go places. We go to the library, she loves going to Tapatio and Zoë Yogurt in Newcastle and she also really loves playing balloon volleyball,” Hopper said. “Mentoring shows you that people are all the same, even if they have a disability. They have the same basic desires – my buddy has crushes on people all the time. It teaches you to treat other people with respect because we’re all the same even if we have little things that are different about us.”