Friends for Life | Athletes for Kids continues to grow bonds in Issaquah, Sammamish

Started at Skyline High School in 2001, Athletes for Kids matches preps from several area schools with youngsters dealing with physical, neurological and social hurdles.

Sally Morgan can’t control her motherly instincts.

As her eight-year-old son Ryan nears the top of the grandstand at Bannerwood Park in Bellevue, she continuously offers reminders to take it slow or risk an ugly spill on the concrete steps.

“I try not to be overprotective,” she says. “But sometimes, it’s hard.”

It’s harder for her than most, and with good reason: Ryan suffers from a form of cerebral palsy that causes tension throughout the left side of his body, along with a host of other physical obstacles.

The soon-to-be second grader at Endeavor Elementary in Sammamish is confined by arm and leg braces at night and spends hours each week in therapy sessions to mitigate the atrophy in his muscles and gain functional strength. The effects of the condition, including a slight difference in the lengths of his legs, will likely never completely cease. But with the help of a mentorship program that features prep athletes from throughout Issaquah and Sammamish, his condition is becoming an ever-smaller piece of his identity.

When Athletes for Kids started in 2001, it had one mentor named Simi Reynolds and the modest goal of helping one third-grader gain confidence and acceptance despite a difficult case of Tourette’s Syndrome that had made him an outcast among his peers. In the 11 years since, it has become a haven for youngsters seeking respite from sometimes debilitating conditions and an invaluable learning experience for the prep athletes who mentor them.

In 2004, Sammamish resident and mother of three mentors Teresa Bretl came on full-time and has been the driving force behind the program in the years since taking over for founders Ken and Liz Moscaret. With the program’s focus on using student-athletes, Bretl said operating like a team is a main focus and helps new mentors relate their experiences to what they will see working with Athletes for Kids.

“I look for someone who has a sense of compassion,” Bretl said. Not feeling sorry for someone, but having empathy.”

Skyline senior Nate Gibson possessed those qualities and has been a natural fit as a mentor with Athletes for Kids. A defensive back and quarterback on the 4A state title winning football team and a pitcher on the division champion baseball squad in the spring, Gibson was matched during his sophomore year with an elementary-aged boy who shared many of his interests: baseball, football, ice cream and even a June birthday. His name was Ryan Morgan.

“He’s really just a great kid,” Gibson said. “It’s a great friendship, both ways.”

Since being matched more than two years ago, Gibson has met with Morgan regularly to toss around the football, work together on Ryan’s baseball swing and most importantly, help him regain the fearless nature that characterizes his peers. After two seasons of his own on the baseball diamond, Morgan has begun to do just that.

“He’s getting there, which is cool to see,” Sally said. “Nate has been a huge part of that.”

And Gibson is far from alone.

Since Athletes for Kids began at Skyline in 2002, around 400 young people with disabilities have connected with 430 prep athletes from Skyline, Eastlake, Issaquah and Liberty high schools, building a life-altering friendship for both.

Eva Perry, who graduated from Issaquah in the spring and will be on the track and field team competing in the pole vault for the University of Washington, began mentoring with Athletes for Kids during her sophomore year. She went into the experience hoping to make a change and found part of the change that happened was from within.

“I was out there mentoring her, but she was definitely giving me back just as much,” Perry said. “It had a really strong impact.”

Bretl said that is a common refrain from mentors, who often come to find more value than they thought possible in the happiness of their buddy. Gibson said while he too has seen growth in Ryan, it is the changes in his own perspective that are the most pronounced.

“I’ve learned so much from it and grown so much,” he said.

As Ryan Morgan hits the bottom step and bounces off to a nearby water fountain, the angst quickly wears off his mother’s face and is replaced by the familiar look of admiration.Just like Gibson, Sally Morgan has already learned a great deal from her young son. While simple things- getting dressed, eating a bowl of cereal, playing catch with a baseball- are relatively simple for most, they provide a constant challenge for Ryan.

When Gibson graduates from Skyline in 2013, Sally said she isn’t sure what Ryan will do, though the two have no doubt built a friendship that will last beyond the constraints of the program.

“I see him more confident in himself and more willing to try, partly because he’s gotten to do so many things,” Sally said of her son. “When he puts his mind to something, there is no stopping him, now.”

“He’s basically learning to play baseball one-handed,” Sally Morgan said of her son. Celeste Gracey, Issaquah-Sammamish Reporter

Sally Morgan said time on the baseball diamond with Gibson and teams of his peers has given him confidence. Celeste Gracey, Issaquah-Sammamish Reporter

Spending time with Morgan has never been anything but a thrill for Gibson, who said there is no substitute for the feeling of bringing joy to his adoring buddy. Celeste Gracey, Issaquah-Sammamish Reporter

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