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Honorary Player Program Is Integral Part of Sports Experience

By Denis Grasska

CHULA VISTA — Mike Centrullo has coached the varsity girls softball team at Mater Dei Catholic High School for 16 years.

Three years ago, he inaugurated a new program through which a young girl with special needs is invited to serve as an honorary member of the team. Since then, this has become an integral part of the softball experience.

“I can’t imagine a season without an honorary player,” Centrullo said. “It creates a passion ... and a purpose and, without it, it would just be softball.”

Honorary players wear a jersey emblazoned with the number one and are invited to participate as much as they are able in team events. For instance, they are offered the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at games and to watch the games — and cheer on their teammates — from the dugout.

The honorary player program is rooted in the values of Mater Dei Catholic High School, Centrullo said, particularly the idea of “giving back and, when you’re blessed, paying that forward.” But in addition to providing a special-needs child with a unique opportunity, he said, the program also benefits the team members.

“They’re learning how lucky they are, they’re learning about other people’s needs and what their challenges are,” Centrullo said.

Carli Gastineau, now 13, had the distinction of being the team’s first honorary player in 2013. Her health challenges include a variety of heart-related issues, and she has undergone multiple surgeries.

The following year, Carli was succeeded by Kelly Lecker, then 7 years old, who has cerebral palsy.

During this past season, which ran from mid-February through late May, it was 8-year-old Emma Natalia Soltero-Ocampo, who goes by Natalia, who served as the team’s honorary player. Natalia, who has Down syndrome, is “a sweet, loving child, but very shy,” said Lynn Flanagan, who serves as honorary player program coordinator.

Centrullo said he hopes the experience of being the team’s honorary player this year “took her a little bit out of her comfort level to help her grow and exposed her to some things that she ordinarily wouldn’t have been.”

And “it doesn’t end here,” Centrullo added, explaining that the honorary player program is “not just a one-year deal.” While a new child is selected each year, former honorary players are encouraged to continue their relationship with the team and invited to keep on wearing their number-one jerseys, cheering from the dugout and participating in team events. Kelly, last year’s honorary player, even threw out the first pitch at one of the games this past season.

“Each year, [the program is] becoming bigger,” Centrullo said, “and [honorary players] don’t just go away. They become a part of a family, the Mater Dei softball family.”

This summer, Centrullo said, he hopes to add a new facet to the program by having team members volunteer during the off-season with the Special Olympics softball program. Through that interaction, he said, the team might even find next year’s honorary player.

Flanagan, who plays a large role in seeking out special-needs children for the honorary player position, is grateful for the opportunity she has had to get to know the children and their families.

“I have grown very close to the Gastineaus, Leckers and Soltero-Ocampos,” she said. “It has afforded me a chance to step inside their world and I see the challenges, hospitalizations and myriad issues which follow them for a lifetime.”

“It is so different than a healthy child being sidelined briefly with a broken arm,” she continued. “These special-needs children require ongoing care, and it takes very dedicated parents to shoulder this responsibility. I admire these parents greatly.”

Natalia’s parents, Richard Ocampo and Margaret Soltero, said their daughter is a great example of the expression, “Never judge a book by its cover.”

“She puts up a very big wall when she is out of her element, but if you spend enough time with her, you’ll meet the real Natalia — a loving, playful and exceptionally bright little girl,” Ocampo said. “We were told that Natalia wouldn’t be able to do so many things, and she has proven the ‘experts’ wrong, time and again. ... Natalia does not fit into any kind of cookie-cutter mold of what a child with Down syndrome is supposed to be like.”

Though his daughter is still working to overcome “a few hurdles,” including delayed speech, Ocampo said he has seen tremendous growth and believes that the honorary player program has been a part of that process.

“Our goal for Natalia is always to make sure that we immerse her in all manner of social activity,” he said. “Although it is not visible to the naked eye, I know that Natalia has had major social skills growth from the interactions she had with the girls on the team. Simply watching her go out to high-five the girls at the conclusion of a game, you can see Natalia’s wall come down. And as her parents, that makes us very happy.”

He expressed interest in continuing his family’s involvement with the Mater Dei Catholic softball team next season, as well as his “hope that this program continues to enrich the lives of the players and the lucky young ladies who get to be named honorary player.”

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