Creating emotional safe place on soccer field



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Garret Lange stands with Sandy Castillo, director of TOPSoccer for Southern California, a program that promotes soccer for kids with special needs.
Everyday Hero: Creating emotional safe place on soccer field

Sandy Castillo pours herself into coaching soccer for kids with disabilities because she knows firsthand the sanctuary the game can offer


Sandy Castillo didn’t know her offsides from her sliding tackle when she volunteered to be a coach for her daughter Julie’s soccer team back in 1985. “I just didn’t like the way coaches were screaming at the kids,” says the gravelly-voiced Castillo. “I decided if someone was going to be screaming at my kid, it was going to be me!”

She threw herself into it because Julie loved the game, and she loved Julie. Sandy quickly came to understand what Julie loved about soccer, how it gave kids a way to engage their bodies and minds, and teach them lessons about cooperation and sportsmanship. Boy, girl, young, old – it’s a game for everyone, Sandy came to see. “I fell in love with it,” she says.

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Sandy Castillo

Age: 58

Residence: Placentia

Favorite charity: TOPSoccer

“Every breathing moment Sandy is thinking about the advancement and wellbeing of our kids. The love that she doesn’t get to share with Julie [her daughter who died], she shares with all the kids and their parents.”

– Ken Dandrea, TOPSoccer coach and parent of a son with special needs


 Although Sandy worked at her family’s floral business in their hometown of Placentia, her identity soon became that of Soccer Mom – capital “S” and capital “M,” no question. “I was,” she says, “one of those super competitive ones.”

And then Leslie happened.

During the draft for the season players in 1990, Sandy pulled the name Leslie Ellington. When she called Leslie’s mom, Nancy, to tell her Leslie would be on her team, Nancy said, “You do know Leslie has Down syndrome, right?”


“What? Panic! I think I actually did panic.” Sandy laughs about it now as she sits in her dining room, boxes of soccer trophies still to unpack, a cup of coffee in hand. At the time, she has never worked or even been around kids with special needs. She had no idea what she had to do. “That year I happened to have a young lady on my team who ended up getting a full ride to North Carolina to play soccer, and then I had Leslie. What was I going to do, how was I going to balance them out?”

But Nancy Ellington wanted to find a way to have her daughter play on Sandy’s competitive team. “She said, ‘I want this to work, how can I make this work?’”

They found a way, having Leslie on the field five minutes per quarter; Julie, meanwhile, came to adore her mom’s special player and enjoyed helping her – planting the seeds for what would be her future passion for coaching, and for her aim to become a special education teacher. And the team went on to have an undefeated season.

Only, Nancy Ellington wasn’t celebrating, Sandy recalls. “She told me the reason Leslie had a good experience was because they won; if they had lost everyone would have would have said we should have pulled her out.”

Sandy thought about that, and realized Nancy was right. “Not that the parents weren’t great – they were – but the competitive desire would have taken over.”

So Sandy and Nancy put their heads together to launch a league of their own through the Junior United Soccer Association. The Outreach Program for Soccer – TOPSoccer – grew from a handful of players in 1992, to more than 100 during some years (last year there were 82 in the Placentia program). “It dawned on me that TOPSoccer was what I was supposed to be doing with my life,” she says. “Out of all the coaches that year, I get Leslie. Why did I get her? This was the path I was supposed to get on. It was my choice to follow it, but it gave me an inkling of what I could do.”

It wasn’t easy at first. She poured through all the information she could find on autism, cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome, to educate herself on some of the most common conditions her players deal with. She soon realized that kids are kids – these players just needed a little more patience, a little more problem-solving help. Easy.

Earning the trust of their parents, however, wasn’t so easy.

“If you are not in the disabled community you face a double whammy: Parents don’t trust you, which I understand – I didn’t trust anyone with my kids and my kids are considered typical. And society has not treated most of these kids well. They get made fun of. Stared at.”

Sandy came to understand that “her kids,” as she calls them now, “get limits set at school, they get limits set by their doctors, by society.” TOPSoccer was a chance to change all that, to create a program geared to letting them go as far as they are able – then pushing them to go further.” Those Saturday games at 3 p.m. and the one- hour practice sessions each week became, she says, “the safe place,” free of judgment, filled with acceptance.

But Sandy had no idea that she herself would come to need that safe place.

In 2000, Julie was in a car accident that left her a quadriplegic. Ironic, says Sandy, that Julie became like one of the kids she had hoped to help.

Then, six weeks after the accident, Julie died from complications. She was 20.

To say that Sandy, along with her husband Al and her son Aaron, were grief-stricken does not do justice to the pain and isolation that was suddenly theirs. There was no place that seemed big enough to contain all their grief. Friends, family – no one knew how to talk about the grief all around them. Julie’s high school graduation photo hangs alongside her brother’s above the mantle in the Castillo home, her pretty face and bright smile unfaded, unchanging.

TOPS still needed Sandy, though. She considered not going back to coach – ”too many memories.” But she ended up returning to the field, placing a plaque marking Julie’s life on the Placentia practice field. “These kids saved my sanity. If you are having a bad day, nobody looks at you like you are weird. No one says, ‘what’s wrong with you?’”

She says she couldn’t have imagined 23 years later she would still be coaching – not to mention serving as chairwoman of all the Southern California TOPS programs. “Now I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says, noting that she won’t think about retiring until she reaches the 25th anniversary mark. “If at the end of my life, I know I have changed the life of just one person, then my life has been a success. I can’t change the whole world. I can change my little corner. I can make a difference to my kids. I don’t care where you are, you are my kid.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-6892 or