As a 6-year-old with cerebral palsy, Sierra Bennett had few activities available.
Finding a sport that she could play was as much of a challenge as finding one in which she felt accepted.
What she found was a bunch of high school boys who love to play the game of soccer with any child who shows up.
Bennett has been as much a presence over the past decade at the youth soccer program for children with physical and mental challenges at the Salem Indoor Soccer Center as North Salem boys soccer coach Rich Swartzentruber, who has brought his teams along to put on the program for the past 17 years.
“It’s awesome,” said Bennett, now a 17-year-old junior at McKay. “It gives me a chance to go and do something after school. There’s not much I can go and do because I am disabled and I have obstacles.
“It’s really good and I really, really like it.”
For most children kicking a ball through a series of cones in a drill isn’t a big deal, but it means a lot to her.
In the past 11 years there have been times when Bennett showed up in a wheelchair and in a cast from her waist down after a surgery.
The North Salem players pick the wheelchair up and carry it on the field so she can kick an oversized ball.
There have been times when Bennett plays soccer from her walker.
There are times when she plays without a support device and when she gets so tired from running up and down the field she has to lean on the sideboard for support.
Sometimes she falls down, but she pops back up with a smile on her face and keeps playing.
“I’ve seen her progress through time with the surgeries she’s had and getting more able and working hard and just the determination that she’s had all these years, and other kids, too,” said Swartzentruber, North Salem’s head coach for 23 years.
“But likewise it’s so important for my kids, my players, because it gives them a chance to give something back and it gives them a different perspective of sports.”
To a child in a wheelchair, the act of putting on a yellow or red penny so they can be a part of a team can be a meaningful thing in itself.
The physical skills or abilities of the children who participate in the program doesn’t matter because they’re all treated as equals.
When Corazon Baricio, a senior at McNary scored a goal, he lifted his penny over his head in celebration as he ran back down the field with the ball in his hand, receiving high fives the entire way.
There were smiles because everyone knew he was having fun.
“We just want them to have fun and pass the ball just like regular kids and just play soccer,” North Salem junior Sergio Villazana said.
The program grew out of a TOPSoccer program that Swartzentruber led as part of his association with Capital Futbol Club years ago.
The program’s association with those groups ended long ago, but Swartzentruber wanted to keep the program going.
It runs for six weeks in the fall for an hour at 6 p.m. Wednesday nights, and some years goes on in the spring.
At the end of each season, Swartzentruber hands out certificates to the children and treats them to cookies, juice boxes and oranges.
“And it also comes at a time when he’s in season with his team,” said Vernon Daniel, manager of Salem Indoor Soccer Center. “And he’s a teacher and he’s got papers to grade.”
Not only does the program bring the children with disabilities out of their normal social circles, it brings the North Salem players out of theirs.
Without much prompting, they figure out how to interact with the children as players and coaches on a level they otherwise never would.
“It definitely helps us grow,” said junior Gerardo Gutierrez. “It feels good to give back. It gives them an opportunity to see that there’s good people out there.
“There was a kid out there and he was asking for our Snapchats. He wanted to get to know us. It’s great to get to know these people.”
Swartzentruber encourages his players to help out with the program but doesn’t require it.
Long after North Salem’s season is over in mid-November, a time when many could be playing club soccer or doing other activities, the players keep showing up.
“Soccer’s over now and it’s not like I have to pry them to come,” Swartzentruber said. “They just say, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, we’re coming.’ A lot of them come, and it’s fun to see them out there because they adapt really quickly to figure out how they ought to play.
“They’re really good at figuring out how they ought to be. That’s kind of nice for me to see that as well. The developmentas they come more and more often they get a different perspective, and they’re really nurturing.”
Any semblance of North Salem’s players trying to appear cool melts away when they start working with the children.
They make over-exaggerated motions in trying to dive to stop goals, and they always fail.
“We know what it means to them,” said North Salem junior Francisco Garibay. “I would have loved it if a high school kid came up to me when I was a little kid and played with me. It feels good to have that attention, you know.”
On a typical night the children and players arrive around 6 p.m., everyone stretchs and jogs for a few minutes of warm-up, they do a kicking drill or two and play two 10-minute halves of soccer.
The program is free and always has been.
The Salem Indoor Soccer Center donates the use of the field and Swartzentruber and his players volunteer their time .
“When you have a child with a disability, the financial burden that you have for the rest of your life, for your child’s life, is incredible,” Daniel said.
“And for us to just help so they can get out, sometimes it’s a break for the parents that they get an hour where they can mentally just check out and pause and whatever, which is good for the parents because Rich and the kids just take the kids.”
In theory the program is supposed to be for children ages 5 to 18, but age doesn’t matter much. If someone who is slightly older or younger arrives, they’re welcomed .
When siblings or friends of a disabled player show up, they’re encouraged to put on a penny and play along with everyone else.
The participation numbers of the disabled players varies, but this fall there were around five children for every session.
Children who are paralyzed have come and children with asthma have come, but whatever the disability they are made to feel like a member of the team and given every chance to have fun.
“It’s such a good chance for her to get the socialization, but socialization that’s her choice, not these are the people that you’re stuck with all the time so you have to go hang out with them,” said Kathleen Bennett, Sierra’s mother. “This is socialization that she gets to choose, and she decides when she wants to come.
“The kids that have disabilities, much, much of their life is decided for them. Much of their structure is not of their own choosing.”
Soccer is a sport that is easily accessible to any interested youth, but for youths with disabilities it can be a challenge to find a place to play.
Some of the children don’t have the motor skills – or the opportunity – to play a sport such as golf.
But the accessibility of soccer makes it the perfect avenue for ease of entry for any child.
“It’s awesome,” said Christopher Racine, a seventh grader at Claggett Creek Middle School.
Swartzentruber is a gentle-mannered, gray-bearded coach who reminds you of the wise teacher who never judged you but pushed you to try to try harder in class.
His easy-going manner rubs off on his players as they work with the children.
Their interaction with the kids is a big part of why he’s kept the program going as long as he has.
And he tells the same jokes he has for years.
“It’s just as good for my kids as for them,” Swartzentruber said.
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6701 or Twitter.com/bpoehler