For West Hempstead teenager Jessica Lee, the game of soccer is more than scoring goals. She believes that the pitch is a place for inclusiveness, and that the sport can also create opportunities to give back to the community.
Lee was recently named TOPSoccer’s regional and national Buddy of the Year by the Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association. “It was really humbling for me to get this honor,” Lee, 16, said. “It shows that I’m a role model to others, and now I have a chance to influence the game even more and make it even bigger.”
TOPSoccer is a community-based training program that helps young athletes with disabilities. Since 2009 it has honored individuals who demonstrate patience, understanding and dependability while helping to create a fun experience for children through soccer.
“Jessica loves playing soccer, and wanted the enjoyment she receives from playing the world’s most popular sport to be extended to everybody,” Randy Vogt, ENYYSA’s public relations director, said in a statement. “Through her family’s creation of the West Hempstead Chiefs TOPSoccer program, now all kids in West Hempstead have the same opportunity.”
Lee, a junior at Kellenberg High School who plays on the varsity soccer team, has been a member of the Chiefs Soccer Club since she was 7. Her parents, Lauren and Terence, both be-lieved in getting Jessica — and her three siblings — involved in sports at an early age.
In 2010, her family organized a one-day soccer clinic for people with disabilities to gauge the community’s interest. Lauren said that Jessica enjoyed the clinic, and helping others. The following year, her family helped launch a local chapter of the TOPSoccer program, which partnered with the Chiefs Soccer Club.
Last year Jessica decided to start a breast cancer awareness fundraiser in the Long Island Junior Soccer League. She designed pink T-shirts with the slogan “West Hempstead Soccer Kicks Cancer,” and encouraged her teammates and their parents at Kellenberg to join the event and be volunteers. The Chiefs raised $1,400 for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports people affected by breast cancer.
Jessica said that the inspiration for the fundraiser was her grandmother, Dorothy Bristol, who died of breast cancer in 2017, at age 87. “She was one of the biggest advocates for TOPSoccer, so I really just wanted to do something to honor her,” Jessica said. “It was really touching, and it was really nice to bring my school soccer team and my club team together to see what I do.”
Earlier this year, she held a fundraiser to support people with Down syndrome. She drew inspiration from TOPSoccer players Shane Stepinski and Michael Maher, who have the disorder. “Shane and Michael have been a part of the program since I started,” Jessica said, “and they’ve become my best friends.”
Jessica was nominated for the Buddy of the Year award by her mother, TOPSoccer’s director for West Hempstead. “It’s just something that we love doing,” Lauren said. “It’s a part of our family, but she definitely has the energy to do it. She’s learned a lot of lessons about empathy for people but also giving back.”
“I couldn’t do any of this without my mom,” Jessica said. “It’s been exciting to know that we’re doing something for good cause.”
She would like to study psychology in college, she said, and hopes to work with children with special needs. She added that supporting others has become a part of her life. “I think I have a gift to be able to work so well with these kids,” Jessica said, “and I want to continue doing that.”
She will be honored by the ENYYSA at its holiday party on Saturday, at Marina del Rey in the Bronx, and at the U.S. Youth Soccer Awards Gala on Jan. 18, in Baltimore, which is held in conjunction with the United Soccer Coaches Convention.