Amanda Shellhouse wants to fly.
The 17-year-old keeps a picture of Dale Earnhardt Jr. near her bed and a poster of him on her wall. Whether it be on a plane, in a car or around three bases in her wheelchair, one thing is certain — Amanda likes to go fast.
Doctors diagnosed Amanda, born three months premature, with cerebral palsy when she was 18 months old.
She’s used a wheelchair ever since. Her speech is slurred and difficult to understand unless you’re accustomed to hearing it. But with some patience, you can get an earful. She has little use of her hands because of the spasms caused by the cerebral palsy. At 77 pounds, her legs are like spindles. Amanda needs others to dress her, feed her and help her with all the routine daily tasks most people take for granted.
And after spending her youth watching her parents and older sisters play softball and baseball, it was Amanda’s turn to fly around the bases. For six weeks, her family cheered her on just as they have her entire life.
Amanda plays for the Pirates. She’s No. 3.
March 29 — Opening day for the Dothan Miracle League.
Teams take turns squaring off on the field designed with a rubberized surface to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. There are six teams; two are for adults with disabilities. It’s a roller-coaster day. There’s laughter, some tears of joy. Near the fence on one side of the field, Amanda sits with her family. They’ve all come out — her mother, father, stepmother, sisters and grandparents.
It’s the Cardinals vs. the Pirates.
It’s clear pretty quickly this is not a normal ball game. First of all, nobody keeps score, nobody strikes out and you don’t have to knock one out of the field to get a home run. Each player has a buddy to help them during a game. When a player comes up to bat, their name and photograph are displayed on a digital screen at the back of the field.
Nobody loses in this league.
“I think it’s great,” Sandra Shellhouse, Amanda’s mother, said. “I think it’s one of the best things that could have happened to Dothan.”
By 1990, Billy and Sandra Shellhouse already had two daughters — Cindy, born in 1980, and Donna, born in 1984.
When Sandra found out she was pregnant a third time, she had neither planned on nor wanted another child. Six months into the pregnancy, Sandra was hospitalized with an abrupted placenta, a condition in which the placenta pulls away from the uterine wall. It can lead to premature birth and miscarriage.
Amanda was born three months early and weighed just 3 pounds.
There was swelling in Amanda’s brain, and a shunt was put in to drain the fluid. Amanda spent 45 days at Baptist Medical Center in Montgomery.
Amanda’s parents — who have been divorced 15 years now — took her home.
But something was different.
A year after she was born, Amanda did not sit up. She did not roll over. She was not doing any of the things her older sisters had done by that age. At 18 months old, Amanda was finally diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy encompasses a number of disorders caused by brain trauma.
The United Cerebral Palsy estimates between 1.5 million to 2 million children and adults in the U.S. have cerebral palsy; 10,000 babies are diagnosed with cerebral palsy each year.
April 3 — The Athletics vs. the Pirates.
It’s a Thursday evening. Amanda’s normal buddy, Providence Christian School teacher Jordan Sanders, is unable to make it. Jordan’s daughter, Lauren, fills in as Amanda’s buddy. The entire Sanders family is active in the Miracle League. Mark Sanders, Jordan’s husband, is a Pirates coach. Their children volunteer as buddies for the Orioles.
Billy Shellhouse drives up from Sunny Hills, Fla., with his wife, Mary, for Amanda’s games. He watches his daughter intently when she’s on the field. After making it around the bases and back to home, he meets Amanda in the Pirates’ dugout.
“How did you like going all the way around?” he asked her.
“Good,” Amanda said.
She’s playing second base in the outfield. With Lauren behind her ready to scoop up the ball if it comes near them, Amanda talks to the Athletics’ players as they stop at second.
Amanda’s smile is visible from the dugout.
Back at bat, Lauren helps Amanda hold the lightweight bat. Together they hit the ball off a tee. The two then work their way around bases, Lauren pushing Amanda’s wheelchair.
From third base, Lauren yells back to Amanda’s family. “She said she wants to go faster.”
“She just got an electric wheelchair a few months ago,” Amanda’s sister, Cindy, said. “… The only speed she knows is faster.”
Billy Shellhouse yells some encouragement to his youngest daughter.
“Amanda, you’re doing real good out there,” he said. “You sure went flying around them bases.”
For the longest time, Sandra Shellhouse blamed herself for Amanda’s condition.
She felt enormous guilt after Amanda’s birth because she had not wanted more children when she found out she was pregnant.
“Then one day my mother’s preacher told me, ‘God don’t give these children to just anyone’,” Sandra said.
Today, she can’t imagine not wanting all her daughters. Amanda, she said, is her miracle baby.
April 19 — With the April 12 game rained out, the Pirates meet the Braves.
Amanda plays pitcher.
It’s chilly on this Saturday, so Amanda is bundled in jackets to keep her warm. She’s not having a good day, and it’s been a bad week. The headrest on Amanda’s regular wheelchair broke, so she’s using her electric chair. It’s more cumbersome and requires ramps just to haul it around in Sandra’s van.
It takes Jordan some time to get used to the electronic controls. It’s slow-going until Sandra increases the speed to help things along. Amanda didn’t like the slow pace of the electric chair.
“She wanted to go faster,” Sandra said.
A couple of young Braves players provide some needed levity during the game.
Six-year-old Jessie Hall bats for the Braves. She’s followed by Joshua Adkins, her best friend. Joshua bats and proceeds to first where Jessie waits. She won’t go to second until he hugs her.
It’s undeniably cute — Joshua bats and runs to first. He hugs Jessie, who runs to second. Joshua leaves first and runs to hug his dad, a Braves coach. Joshua and his buddy return to first. Joshua throws his hat on the ground. He then runs to the outfield fence and sits in the shade for the rest of the inning.
Amanda has had a tough road medically.
In 2003, she was diagnosed with scoliosis. It was so severe, she began having difficulty breathing.
She’s had five shunts in her life to keep fluid off her brain. The shunt connects to a tube traveling down her neck under her skin and drains the fluid from Amanda’s brain into her peritoneum. The excess fluid is eventually reabsorbed into her body.
A Baclofen pump is used to control Amanda’s spasticity caused by the cerebral palsy. A tube implanted under the skin of her abdomen connects to the spinal cord and releases the Baclofen in controlled doses.
It can be dangerous. Sandra Shellhouse remembers the death of one of Amanda’s classmates due to an infection around a Baclofen pump. But without it, Amanda’s spasms would be overwhelming.
April 26 — The Pirates vs. the Orioles.
Orioles player Buck McClendon is well known. His mother, Melinda, was instrumental in getting the Dothan Miracle League off the ground. Both Melinda and Buck’s names are on the field house at the Miracle Field. On this Saturday, Buck is running all over.
Like Amanda, every player has a story.
Michael Barber used to play Little League baseball and was an All-Star player at Eastgate Park. When he was 9, his family was in a car accident on the way to All-Star practice. Michael suffered a severe brain injury and now uses a wheelchair. He’s 18 and plays for the Pirates. His brother and sister, Brian and Nicole, buddy with him.
Michael’s parents are typically nearby watching. His father, Doug Barber, explains that Michael’s medication often leaves him groggy by the afternoon. But he knows Michael looks forward to the games. Just a mention of it brings a smile to Michael’s face.
“These kids, right here, enjoy this so much,” Doug Barber said. “This one hour, they are like everyone else.”
Like any teenager, Amanda has her good days and bad days. A lot of it, her mother said, is frustration.
“She gets so frustrated with herself, especially when she’s trying to tell you something,” Sandra said.
Amanda has a memory like you wouldn’t believe, Sandra said. She does well on her tests at school, which are given to her verbally by a teacher. And she remembers what she learns. Numbers, however, mean nothing to her. She routinely “lies” about her age.
She could be a good boss one day, her mother attests. But while she’s in the 10th grade at Northview High School, Amanda’s school work is on an elementary level.
“I would love to see her go to college, but I’m realistic about it,” Sandra said.
With big brown eyes and her mother’s olive complexion, Amanda doesn’t look much like her older sisters. Sandra is Amanda’s primary caregiver. She easily lifts Amanda in and out of a van.
Attending school to get her registered nursing degree and working as a licensed practical nurse, Sandra leans on both Amanda’s maternal and paternal grandparents for help with Amanda when she needs it.
Sandra doesn’t worry about what will happen to Amanda if she no longer can care for her. Sandra knows Amanda’s father and stepmother as well as her sisters will step in when needed.
“They have never treated her any different,” Sandra said of her other daughters. “They’ve never been embarrassed or ashamed to have her around … If something happens to me, I really don’t worry about her.”
May 1 — The Pirates vs. the Cardinals.
Coach Ronnie Tucker reached a goal when Melissa Pearson, the spirited ham of the league, hit a pitched ball. Tucker cheered Melissa all the way to first base.
“My goal was to get all of them not in a wheelchair to get a hit with a pitch,” Tucker said.
Chaz Tenzel-Walser for the Cardinals hit one out of the park. It’s the second for the season.
One of Tucker’s customers heard what he’d been doing and wanted to do something for the Pirates. So each player on the team got gift certificates to Dairy Queen.
Yes, Amanda has disabilities. But in so many ways she’s a typical kid.
Her favorite television shows are “Full House,” “Golden Girls” and “The Cosby Show.” She has all six seasons of “Full House” on DVD. She enjoys Nick at Nite and likes to drift off to sleep with her TV on a timer.
She likes to go to the beach. She loves the water. She wants a boat.
She likes sardines with hot sauce.
She likes to sip on a Coke-flavored Icee, and buddy Jordan Sanders brings her one for every game even going into “emergency Icee” mode when the Icee machine at her usual store broke.
Magic Moments, an organization that grants wishes to kids with disabilities, has offered to grant Amanda a wish.
She wants to fly.
She studied Hawaii in school and wants to see a volcano. But she’d settle for a cruise or flying somewhere sunny.
May 10 — Pirates vs. Dodgers, final game
It’s the Saturday before Mother’s Day, and the Pirates only have five players show up. It’s a good day. Amanda’s smile comes quick.
“She likes the outdoors,” Billy Shellhouse said. “She loves to sit on the porch.”
Amanda’s wearing dark sunglasses to block the glare in her eyes. She looks over her glasses at her dad.
“I see you, Amanda,” Billy said.
The game ends, and the players take to the field to congratulate each other, as they have every other game. Pirates Coach Mark Sanders announces that Amanda’s grandmother is providing popcorn and Coke for the team. Sanders, a pharmaceutical rep when he’s not coaching the Pirates, gathers the team around in the dugout to formally end the season with a team yell.
“Go Pirates … Argh!”