Diego Barajas was in seventh grade when, to fulfill a P.S. du Pont Middle School community service requirement, he volunteered to coach kids in the TOPSoccer program.
TOPSoccer – an acronym for The Outreach Program for Soccer – is a U.S. Youth Soccer endeavor sprinkled down to local clubs in which kids with disabilities have the opportunity to learn and play the game.
“It was great and we had fun with the kids,” Barajas said.
Five years later, Barajas, now 17 and a Mount Pleasant High senior, remains a devoted volunteer, regularly attending Saturday afternoon sessions in the fall and spring at the Concord Soccer Association fields on Naamans Road.
Sometimes he even runs the program.
“I didn’t stop,” Barajas said. “It became a fun use of my Saturdays. It was a great way to spend an hour. The kids were having fun. The parents enjoyed it. They could put their feet up for an hour. Everyone was happy. I just felt like it was a great way to spend my time.”
That dedication earned Barajas the 2014 TOPSoccer Buddy of the Year award for U.S. Youth Soccer’s Region I, which extends from Virginia up into New England. Barajas and three other regional winners will be recognized in Philadelphia on Friday at the U.S. Youth Soccer Awards Gala, with one chosen as national Buddy of the Year.
Barajas had no prior experience working with children who had special needs when he was introduced to TOPSoccer by John Weaver, now president of the Delaware Youth Soccer Association.
Weaver, in nominating Barajas for the award, praised his ability to adjust to players’ individual needs. He noted a girl with spina bifida whom Barajas playfully challenged to kick the ball farther and with both feet, which brought both joy and a sense of empowerment to the player.
“The kids love him,” Weaver said. “He’s extremely bright. I’ll say ‘Can you take Sally?’ He’ll size up Sally, see what her temperament is. Then he’ll figure out a way to help Sally learn and he’s really good at it.
“He’s a teenager who comes every Saturday and never says ‘No.’ When the kids come, I know I can turn them over to Diego.”
Diego’s older brother Miguel, now a freshman at the University of Delaware, was named Delaware’s TOPSoccer volunteer of the year for 2013, and Diego earned that honor this year before adding the regional recognition.
“I was very grateful, very excited,” said Barajas, a soccer and tennis player and All-State band member on the saxophone at Mount Pleasant. “I think all the buddies who go out there are just as deserving as me. I think all the players who go out and play are just as deserving of acknowledgment. I’m one person. The program is about a lot of people.”
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