Jessie Birdwhistell was 4 when she first showed an inclination toward soccer.
She was a sixth-grader when she publicly demonstrated an unusual level of empathy for children with special needs.
Now, at 23, Birdwhistell is combining her lifelong passion for soccer and her persistent concern for kids with autism and other health issues and doing something significant for Lexington.
This summer, the University of Kentucky doctoral student launched a youth soccer league tailored to those with special needs.
The local version of The Outreach Program for Soccer — commonly known as TOPS — has begun practice. As many as 32 players and 35 to 40 volunteers have signed on to participate.
"This is something we've wanted for a long time," said Bill McNees, president of the Lexington Youth Soccer Association. "We're so thankful that Jessie took the initiative and made this possible."
Birdwhistell was a small child herself when her interest in soccer first showed.
Her parents had enrolled their 4-year-old daughter in a YMCA gymnastics class. But Jessie was constantly wandering away from the gymnasts toward a soccer class.
"Finally, the gymnastics teacher talked to us and said, 'I think she needs to be in that other class over there,'" says Janice Birdwhistell, Jessie's mother.
Jessie went on to become a soccer standout at Henry Clay High School and played at Denison University in Ohio.
It was Valentine's Day during her sixth-grade year at Morton Middle School when Birdwhistell showed a highly developed sensitivity to children with special challenges.
As a fund-raiser at school, students could pay 50 cents and send a valentine to another child. Jessie noticed that no cards seemed to be going to the school's special-education class.
"Jessie bought valentines and took them to the class and delivered them," Janice Birdwhistell says.
The teacher of the special education class, Stacy Jones, was impressed and asked Jessie to become a peer tutor to her students. Birdwhistell did that for rest of her time in middle school.
"She was amazing, that's the best way I know to describe her," Jones said. "Not only would she do what I asked with the kids, she would go above and beyond."
Among the myriad of challenges that face parents of children with issues such as autism and Down syndrome is finding participatory opportunities tailored to their kids' special requirements.
Jenny Tijou's twin boys, Luc and Etienne, 6, both have autism.
"Like any parent, you want them to benefit from group activities, sports, things that are social," Tijou said. "But it is difficult to find things that fit their needs.
"My kids don't follow directions very well. My kids are loud. They likely are going to have a meltdown. You need people who understand and are prepared for all that."
That is exactly what TOPS, a program of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, is designed to provide.
Birdwhistell has raised money to fund the league and recruited volunteers to staff its operation.
She has done that in addition to working on a Ph.D in in-school psychology with a specialty in autism, holding down a part-time job with the UK Human Development Institute and helping coach the Henry Clay girls soccer team.
Early returns for the effort to launch the league for special-needs children in Lexington are boffo.
Dwight Hoch's daughter Ali, 15, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. After the first TOPS practice, "she was real excited, just loved it," Hoch said. "I sat there as a parent thinking, 'Where has this been?' I've wanted this for years."
Karen Boudreaux said her daughter Kate, 9, who has Down syndrome, "had a blast at the first practice. We're so happy that she'll have a chance to be part of a team."
Birdwhistell plans to divide participants into three age-based teams: 5-9, 10-14, and 15 and older.
If "five or six more kids sign up, we might add a fourth team," she said.
In TOPS soccer, each player is allowed a "buddy" who can be with him or her on the soccer field to help the player follow directions. So the ultimate success of the league rides on whether the volunteers can be retained over time.
"If anybody can keep this going, it is Jessie," says McNees, the LYSA president. "She is totally dedicated to this program."
There is a $25 fee for players to participate in the league. A uniform and soccer equipment are provided. Those who are interested can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.