Bellingham Unified soccer program continuing to grow and touch more families

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 4, 2013 

Goals are not the currency of success in these soccer matches. It's something else entirely - something that means far more: a smile.

It's the intangible effect that causes the heart of Ferndale senior Kelli Bannerman to swell.

"For these kids to be out there and smiling as much as they are is probably the most rewarding thing any parent, coach, partner can ask for," Bannerman said.

Bannerman is in the midst of introducing Ferndale High School to the Bellingham Unified soccer program, which aims to bring together athletes with special needs and pair them with athletes from the school, who are referred to as Unified Partners.

The program was brought about three years ago in a pilot phase to Bellingham High School thanks to Dominique Latagne, and it has since spread to Squalicum, Sehome and now Ferndale.

The program also has spread to four Bellingham middle schools - Fairhaven, Shuksan, Whatcom and Kulshan.

At the heart of the Unified program is the need to give athletes with disabilities an opportunity that didn't previously exist.

Only a child's words to her mother can so easily describe the nature of what Latagne, Bannerman and her partner, Koral Weidcamp, are doing.

"One of the athletes with special needs that is out there, her mom told Kelli's mom that her daughter has always asked, 'Where is there a team for me? There is not a team for me.' So they finally made a team for her," Latagne said in a phone interview.

The soon-to-graduated Bannerman is on her way to play soccer at Saint Martin's University on a near full-ride scholarship, and bringing about an opportunity these athletes with disabilities wouldn't have had otherwise has proved humbling, she said.

"It means so much for me to do this," she said, holding back her emotions. "(I have) always been able to do things, not even a question of what I could do, and to see these kids go out there and try their hardest to even kick and score goals ... they could not be happier about it, and seeing them as excited about something that we take for granted is amazing."

Although the 18-year-old senior found just about every right word to articulate the experience, she said her first practice was near tear-inducing.

"I almost started crying because the parents were so excited to see them out there, and they could not thank (us) enough," she said. "Most said there hasn't been an opportunity for their kids to do anything."

Bannerman's experience is merely one side of the program.

On the other, families that had never met share far more than a common interest in their children.

Alecia Lamont's son, Daniel, is one of the athletes that plays alongside Bannerman.

"When he made his first goal, I almost cried," she said in a phone interview. "I was so close. I cheered so loud that I think the entire field heard me, and there were two other games going on. Everyone turned around, and I was like, 'Yeah, that's my boy.'"

The bringing together of the athletes and partners also brings together families that understand what it is like to raise children with special needs, Alecia said. The comforting feeling she got when speaking with other families that understand her situation is one of the most rewarding aspects of the Unified program.

Bannerman's genuine intentions have made the experience even more special, Alecia said, comparing it to other programs she and Daniel have been involved in when people have come in and wanted to be "saviors."

"They think they are going to come in and be angels of sorts," Alecia said. "With Kelli, she comes in and it is not a grandiose gesture. It's not like she is looking for attaboys or accolades - it's just her being a part of the team."

Bannerman didn't bring the Unified program to Ferndale just as a senior project to see it vanish once she leaves. After she graduates and heads to Lacey to start her collegiate career, others involved, including her younger sister, will continue to offer athletes with disabilities an outlet such as soccer.

"It's great what Kelli is doing, and it's great she is doing her culminating project around this, but really what we are trying to do is make it not a culminating project anymore," Latagne said. "Hopefully over the course over the next couple years, I can work with the Ferndale school district to work with them about what Bellingham is doing, so that Ferndale can also find that national guidance on providing opportunities of unified sports for people with disabilities."

Reach Alex Bigelow at alex.bigelow@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2271.

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