Good News Blog

Miracle League

Monday, Jul. 21, 2008

Their field of dreams

Whether it’s Little League or the majors, there’s nothing like watching a ball game on a warm July evening. This summer there are 60 children playing a game they’ve never played before. The Miracle League for disabled children has expanded to Sioux Falls and those involved say it’s truly a field of dreams.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — It’s hard to count just how many miracles there are on this field. For Ron Griebel the miracle is the field itself.

Griebel heard about the special field about a year-and-a-half ago.

There are Miracle Leagues in Rochester and the Twin Cities. Griebel wanted one in Sioux Falls.

The field is made from a special rubber surface with a painted baseball diamond. Griebel raised $400,000 through private donations and got the city to donate land.

“When we approached the city of Sioux Falls, we said we didn’t want to be tucked away in some corner,” Griebel said. “We wanted to be where other ball fields were, because we want them to play when other kids were playing, so they feel like they’re part of the whole group and not shoved away somewhere.”

The Miracle League field is part of a youth baseball complex just down the street from the local minor league stadium.

Griebel says he wanted the field so his 17-year-old daughter Sammi could experience the joy of baseball.

Sammi has cerebral palsy and Griebel’s eyes glisten with love as he talks about his daughter.

“She loves to be outside and to play,” he said. “She was patient and she’d always go to her sister’s ball games. Now they get to come and watch her play.”

Griebel says playing baseball makes his daughter happy and that makes him happy. The feeling is contagious.

On the field, nine players in team t-shirts are in position. Each player has a ball buddy, a volunteer who helps make plays.

Sometimes that means handing them the ball to throw or showing them where to throw it. The buddies also assist with batting and moving the players in a wheelchairs to their base.

On the field, each players is unique. One claps her hands for every play. Another gets the ball and stands, frozen, as everyone yells together, “throw it!”

Umpire Lyle Smith also serves as pitcher and all-around cheerleader. He calls each child by name. Smith is the executive director of the Sioux Empire Baseball Association.

“I think it’s a great opportunity just to get involved with something, to interact with other children, to be in a situation to enjoy participating in a degree of physical activity,” he said. “They play a game, but that is a very loose term.”

The rules are simple. Everyone gets a hit. Everyone gets on base and everyone scores. There are no strikes or outs or errors. For Lyle Smith, the act of playing is the miracle.

“I have been involved with baseball all my life,” he said. “I have always worked with the upper level kids college kids who had a shot at the majors. These are the bravest people I have ever seen.”

Parents in the stands cheer for every play and every player. For them it’s a miracle to be there.

They don’t even know the team names – someone says they’re all named after a major league team, but it doesn’t really matter. Randy and Julie Briggs watch their son Scotty. He has Down syndrome.

“Sometimes you feel a little short changed or left out. This makes you feel good,” Julie Briggs said.

“It fills that gap you have of never being able to go to a game and watch our son play ball,” said Randy Briggs.

It also means that Julie Briggs can play a role she never thought she could.

“We live by a big ball complex and you can hear all the cheers, and it’s like, ‘Oh man, we never get to do that.’ And now we do,” Briggs said. “I told my friend now I’m a baseball mom.”

Some people at the field just come to watch baseball. They cheer or just observe in quiet amazement.

Lyle Smith says the miracles will continue as the league grows, more kids with disabilities sign up and more volunteers act as ball buddies.

“I just think people enjoy being around there and trying to make someone else’s life a little more bearable in an hour of fun,” Smith said.

At the end of the game, on this field, every player is a winner. Umpire Lyle Smith says it goes further than that, because these teams share their miracle with anyone who’s got a warm summer evening to watch a ball game.

Wednesday, Jul. 16, 2008

Camp hits a grand slam

The bag of potting soil was too heavy for Bradly Fisher to carry alone.

When Gaven Urban saw Fisher struggling to carry the bag, he was more than willing to lend a helping hand.

Together, the two carried the bag to one of the three pots campers with Camp Grand Slam were filling with soil and flowers Tuesday.

Fisher said he likes flowers and likes to plant them, most of the time.

“I don’t like flowers with bees in them,” he said before getting started.

Camp Grand Slam (social learning and maintenance) is a camp to serve school age to post-school age kids and young adults with multiple disabilities from all over the county. It’s held annually by the Muskingum Valley Educational Service Center.

“It’s something out here for the kids besides pure academic summer school and is an extension of our program,” said Rhonda Carley, camp coordinator and multiple disabilities teacher at John Glenn High School.

The three day-a-week, four-week summer camp has 24 campers this year that are participating in activities like horseback riding, visiting local parks and lakes, making pizza, bowling, a field trip to The Wilds, swimming and other activities.

Planting flowers in three large pots at the Miracle League Field behind the Starlight School was their community service project for the summer. Last year as a community service project, campers wrote letters to troops.

“It gives kids the exposure in the summer because they have so much structure throughout the school year. They can reunite with friends and do summer activities they don’t always get to do,” said Diana White, a kindergarten through second-grade multiple disabilities teacher at Tri-Valley Local Schools and a camp staffer.

This year’s camp is Kate Geiger’s first, but a little more than one week into it, she was having fun.

“I like it. It’s a lot of fun. The kids are always in a good mood and they seem to like to come,” she said.

As a multiple disabilities teacher at Dresden Elementary School for third- through fifth-graders, she said it’s not only good for them to have something to look forward to in the summer but it also helps develop their social skills.

“It definitely helps all their social skills. They’re out in the community with people they don’t normally interact with. They’re not around their typical classmates and have to socialize with different peers,” she said. “Social skills are usually the most difficult for them. The more we can have them in a different environment, the more it will help them.”

Kolton Roush, a senior in the Muskingum Valley program, and Amanda Wells, who is post-school age, are camp counselors this year.

Mark Bellew’s favorite part of camp this year was getting Olive Garden for lunch, but said he also liked planting flowers at the field.

The flowers were donated by Timber Run Gardens LLC.

“I love Camp Grand Slam,” he said. “I have always enjoyed camp and love coming here.”

Wednesday, Jun. 4, 2008

Miracle League gives players chance to shine

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!”

Tuesday, Jun. 3, 2008

Miracle League gets a miracle of its own

The act of giving was also center field Saturday afternoon in Myrtle Beach.

Employees from the Sheraton Broadway Plantation presented an enormous check to The Grand Strand Miracle League.

The Miracle League is a baseball league designed exclusively for children with disabilities.

And the check wasn’t just dollars and cents, it was for $58,123.92.

The emotional presentation was quite a surprise to Miracle League volunteers.

Sheraton employees say they held bake sale, auctions, and just about anything else they could do to raise money.

Wayne Rickman, Vice President of Sales said, “One of the project managers literally came to our houses and took all of our garbage out of our garages, took it down to save more auction house and they made thousands of dollars for that event.”

Sheraton employees said the money is the result of three months of fundraising.

Monday, Jun. 2, 2008

Field is where dreams turn into miracles

Unlike most young moms, Lisa Surgo can pronounce it, spell it, and define it. It’s a medical condition called the Congenital Disorder of Glycosylation. There are about 20 varieties of the syndrome and the rarest of them, the kind her son Kyle has, is limited to about 40 cases in the whole world, she said.

His is a metabolic disorder that affects the heart, liver function, and the size of the brain. Its victims are developmentally delayed, which is actually a rather odd term considering its victims, sadly, often aren’t around long enough to develop all that much in the first place.

The medical experts warned Lisa and her husband, Todd, that Kyle would never see his 5th birthday. They said he would never walk in any way, shape, or form. Had the Surgos asked, the docs would have told them Kyle would never play baseball or swing a golf club either. And they would have been wrong about that too.

Kyle turned 5 in January. His little legs flail furiously to make his walker move. He played in his first T-Ball game the other evening, had a couple hits, stopped a ball in the field, and made a strong throw toward home plate.

“Our whole family was here and there wasn’t a dry eye,” Lisa said. “We were all bawling like babies. Once again, Kyle beat the odds.”

It’s called the Miracle League and, friends, there has never been a more appropriate name for a sports group.

They’ve been a miracle short, though. While some of its participants are ambulatory, many are not and it’s a tough deal to make those wheelchairs and walkers move on dirt or gravel infields and basepaths, even with helpers doing the heavy lifting. It won’t be long, though.

The city of Northwood has a small piece of land in a large park being developed near the fire station behind the ball diamonds at Lark Elementary School. It has agreed to lease that parcel to the Miracle League for 50 years. The lease terms? $1.

They have their land. Now they need a field with a synthetic, rubberized surface. It costs $160,000 and the Miracle League, behind President Jeff Barton and his board, have worked exhaustively in tough economic times to come up with nearly $140,000. The rest will come in one windfall, courtesy of this summer’s Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic Presented by Kroger.

If you’ve ever wondered what kind of good this annual LPGA golf tournament has done from contributing $5.8 million to various children’s charities since its inception in 1984, well, wait a few months and drop by the Miracle League’s new stadium.

The whole tab for labor and fencing and other building materials will surpass $300,000, but just about everything, with the exception of the playing surface, has been donated.

Yes, take a bow, because we are a community with a big heart. One look at these kids, their wide eyes, their smiles; then take in the sound of their laughter and joy and, well, it couldn’t be any other way.

The name most synonymous with the Farr Classic is Se Ri Pak, the event’s five-time champion. Kyle Surgo and nearly a dozen of his Miracle League friends and their helpers, like Kyle’s big brother Andrew, and their parents met up with Se Ri yesterday behind Lark Elementary and it was mutual love at first sight.

The kids taught Se Ri their game, then she taught them hers. A girl named Olivia decided Se Ri was her new best friend, so the golfer helped her buddy hit the plastic baseball off its tee, then held her hand and ran the bases. Later, they took to the field together to play second base.

“They may have handicaps, but they’re having fun and enjoying the day,” Se Ri said. “I can’t think of anything more important. I think this a great experience, and not just for them – for me too. This is as good a time as I’ve had off a golf course.”

But then she was right back on it, sort of. When the kids were done playing baseball, they gathered around Se Ri and the Pink Panther mascot from Owens Corning and learned to hit a golf ball. The LPGA Hall of Famer wrapped her arms around each kid, helped them draw the club back, and then sent a Titleist flying across the field.

Tyrus Carroll thought this was about the greatest thing since, well, baseball. He is a whirling dervish of constant energy. Born with Down syndrome, this sweetheart of a kid also has a rare metabolic bone disease. He’s been through open-heart surgery and so much more, said his mom, Chantillie Doering. But he’s all about rough and tumble, and the Miracle League is just part of his baseball life.

“At home, I can get five or six kids from the neighborhood lined up to play ball, and they want to play with him,” Chantillie said. “It’s incredible. This sport is helping integrate him into the community. He just loves to play ball. In the middle of winter, I’ll pitch him a snowball and he’ll hit it with a shovel.”

Do you like baseball, Tyrus?

“Yeah,” he shouts.

Why? What do you like to do?

“Bat. Throw.”

Do you come here to play with your friends?

“Him,” Tyrus said, pointing at the Pink Panther.

Later, after hitting his first golf shot, Tyrus dropped the club, ran out of Se Ri’s embrace, and hurried to give the Pink Panther a high five.

Kyle Surgo, who has never spoken, took his turn at golf too, but was soon back on the baseball field, making a high-pitched sound suspiciously like laughter as brother Andrew pushed his walker around the basepaths.

“This means the world to us,” Lisa Surgo said. “The Miracle League is just that, a miracle. Somebody is giving these kids a chance to be normal.”

There are hundreds of baseball diamonds in the metro area and there are games every night where healthy kids are throwing curves and stretching doubles into triples.

There are dozens of golf courses where healthy kids are hitting 250-yard drives and getting up-and-down for par.

There is not one of either where you will find more joy and passion for life than Se Ri Pak witnessed yesterday morning from a dozen very special kids on the field behind Lark Elementary.

Do you believe in miracles?

Friday, May. 30, 2008

Town supportive of baseball Miracle

Could a “Miracle League” baseball field be coming to Amherstburg?

If town council, Amherstburg Minor Baseball and the Amherstburg Rotary Club have their way, the answer will be a resounding yes.

A Miracle League field would be the first of its kind in Canada with 172 currently under construction in the United States. The field is a synthetic surface which is designed to allow children with disabilities the opportunity to play baseball. The surface is similar to the Rotary Club Inclusive Playground which is currently under construction at Toddy Jones Park. The local field would be constructed next to a premier baseball field at Larry Bauer Park. Early estimates on cost have it between $300,000-$325,000.

Rotary Club president-elect Mike Vossen said it was a great feeling to see kids getting a chance to get a hit and score a run.

“It was an idea stared in Conyers, Georgia in 1999 by a Rotary Club down there,” he explained. “We want to bring it to Canada and put the first one in Amherstburg.”

Vossen added that several local Rotarians have visited a similar facility in Michigan and have seen it benefit that area. He believes that building a Miracle League field locally would benefit the town and this region.

“This is my dream, to build a field in Amherstburg,” said Vossen. “This isn’t just an Amherstburg thing. This is an Essex County thing.”

According to a report from Manager of Recreation Services Ron Dzombak, a “new allegiance” has been formed between Rotary and Amherstburg Senior Baseball’s Chuck Bondy to build the field south of the proposed premier baseball field at Larry Bauer Park. Minor Baseball is seeking a $75,000 Trillium Grant for the premier field with that organization offering assistance to help build the Miracle League field.

“The baseball initiative can be accommodated within the Bauer Park area without any impact on existing soccer fields. Additional acquisition of lands is required to expand soccer and baseball facilities,” Dzombak wrote.

Dzombak, who himself has a son with a disability, said that once constructed the fields would offer “an inclusive environment where sport and understanding come together and where able bodies and children with disabilities watch each other learn baseball, grow and enjoy the same sport. The co-operative nature of this unique development between these two longstanding organizations within Amherstburg demonstrates the strength in this community towards children.”

Councillor Bob Pillon said Dzombak is “doing a heck of a job” and voiced his full support for the project.

“This town is going to work with you and do everything we can to get this off the ground,” said Pillon.

Rotarian Alison Baldwin said the project could also impact other children, noting her daughter was able to volunteer with disabled children. She firmly believed the project will occur.

“This is a very giving town. This is a town with a huge heart,” she said. “This is a town that does follow through.”

Mayor Wayne Hurst said he too visited the Michigan facility and that “they do a tremendous service to that particular region.” He said Amherstburg is a great community that has people that want it to be sustainable.

“Big things happen when you do the little things right,” said Hurst.

In a related note, council endorsed a new baseball tournament at Centennial Park run in conjunction with St. Francis Advocates. Dzombak noted that in 2007, Bondy approached the town in requesting assistance in producing a baseball tournament to benefit children with disabilities in conjunction with St. Francis Advocates. The latter group operates residential homes across Essex, Kent and Lambton counties. The tournament will be June 28 and will see roughly 80 children playing baseball in a “supportive ‘everyone-wins’ event.”

“There will be other associations (involved) from around the county,” said Bondy.

Deputy Mayor Robert Bailey said he was thrilled to see the event come to town particularly one where children of all abilities can participate. He also thought it would help bring people to town and was glad to see a vision from community individuals.

Councillor Rick Fryer applauded Bondy for stepping forward and bringing the event to town while Mayor Wayne Hurst said council was prepared to help ensure the tournament is successful.

“A vision without a plan is only a dream,” said Hurst.Tow

Monday, Nov. 5, 2007

Baseball field for disabled kids

The founder of the Hooks Baseball team wants to bring a special type of baseball field to Corpus Christi.

Ryan-Sanders Baseball is looking at the idea of building a “Miracle League field”, designed for kids with disabilities.

Reid Ryan, President and CEO of Ryan-Sanders Baseball said, “A similar field in Austin has been a success and I’d like to see one here in Corpus Christi.

The great thing is to have everybody in the community have the same opportunities as everyone else so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Ryan is hoping local Rotary Clubs will help raise enough money to build the project within two years.

Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007

Play ball! Miracle League scores home run on first day

ALLOUEZ — The field of dreams became reality Saturday, when around 100 special kids played baseball at Allouez Optimists Resch Miracle Field and Favre Family Miracle Recreation Area, at the corner of Kalb and Libal streets.

“This is exciting, but it’s also somewhat emotional,” said Allouez mom Marcia Grunwald while watching the opening ceremonies. Her son, Matthew, 18, has a rare condition that limits his mobility and has rendered him nonverbal.

“This is the first opportunity we’ve had to be involved in any kind of sporting event,” she said.

Matthew wasn’t expected to live past his first year, Grunwald said.

Miracle League is a national, nonprofit baseball program for kids age 4 to 19 who have any kind of disability — nobody’s turned away. Because the main barriers to team sports for children with disabilities arise from the natural grass fields used in conventional youth leagues, Miracle League teams play on specially designed rubberized turf fields that accommodate wheelchairs and lessen chances for injuries.

Saturday’s opening games were the first official ones played on the new field. The day capped off around a year of fundraising and planning.

Opening ceremonies included short speeches by key donors such as Deanna Favre of the Favre Fourward Foundation, KI owner and philanthropist Dick Resch, and chair of the National Miracle League Association Dean Alford of Atlanta.

Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay praised the program for its ability to foster healthy bodies and minds.

Alford said in addition to “giving every child the opportunity to play baseball,” Miracle League aims to establish 500 special-surface playing fields around the country.

Miracle League started in Georgia in 2000, and the program has spread to more than 140 communities nationwide. Around half have special-surface fields like the one in Allouez. Players are paired with “buddies” who help them maneuver around the field.

In the Allouez program’s first year — 2006 — 65 players on four teams played on the dirt diamond at Optimist Park. This year’s program has 10 teams and 100 players.

Favre said her family is passionate about helping special-needs kids because the parents of her husband, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, included them in their lives. Brett’s mother taught special education, and his father coached American Legion baseball for 25 years. Those connections led to friendships that still endure.

“The team had a special batboy, and when the team traveled, Brett always volunteered to be his roommate,” Favre said.

The Favres keep in touch with the batboy, now in his 60s, as well as a former student of Brett Favre’s mother.

Friday, Jun. 29, 2007

Field of Dreams

Karen Pusey’s vision for a field of dreams will finally become a reality this weekend when she and others break ground on a new baseball field specially designed for children with physical handicaps.

Through a partnership with Chesterfield Youth Softball Association (CYSA), Chesterfield County Department of Parks and Recreation, the Richmond Braves, dozens of local business and hundreds of contributors, the Miracle League field has been fast-tracked with a fall completion date.

Construction on the cushioned, synthetic turf, water-permeable field with painted lines and bases will begin at the end of May. Pusey and Gregory Curtis, CYSA president and now Miracle League president, are optimistic handicapped youngsters will play “fall ball” on the new field in September.

Currently, standard grass and clay Little League fields with raised bases are available for children with special needs through the Challenger League program. However, standard fields are not suitable for wheelchairs, walkers or crutches, and wet conditions make them virtually unusable for handicapped youngsters. The new Miracle League field will eliminate those barriers.

The national Miracle League Association provided the basic design for the field, but funds had to be raised – a responsibility Pusey took on herself. Starting with the Miracle Live Auction and Gala last February, the Miracle League’s funds have grown to $160,000.

The original cost estimate for the field of $300,000 has now been revised downward to $209,000. In order to get the project up and running to have the needs of this special group of children served as quickly as possible, some amenities have been delayed. Permanent restroom facilities and brickwork around both the dugouts and score board were put on hold.

“We cut some things back in order to get it up and going. We’ll add those other things later,” Pusey said.

There are more than 7,000 special needs kids in Chesterfield County who could enjoy and benefit from the Miracle League field, and businesses and civic groups as well as private citizens have recognized and responded to that need.

With Chesterfield’s parks and recreation department on board as a co-sponsor, the Miracle League will be included in the department’s course catalogues and other marketing efforts.

Monday, May. 7, 2007

Baseball season kicks off for children with disabilities

Evan Sussman was more than ready to play some baseball yesterday at Ridge Road Park.

With a cap on his head and a mitt on his hand, the 7-year-old sports fanatic had been waiting all winter for a chance to take a crack at the ball and then sprint around the bases – and he wasn’t going to let the fact that he was in a wheelchair stop him.

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

More than 100 children with disabilities kicked off the opening day of the Miracle League baseball season with smiles so radiant that they brought tears to the eyes of parents and spectators.

Made possible through donations and grants, the Miracle League aims to bring the nation’s pastime to every child, regardless of disability. Participation is free.

“All week long, all he talks about is playing baseball on the weekend,” said an emotional Karen Kushnir, Evan’s mother of Brewster. “This has been a dream come true for us. As you can see, I’ll just keep crying.”

The Miracle League of Westchester County is one of the newest chapters of the national organization founded in Atlanta about a decade ago. There are now more than 140 local chapters.

Games are played on a specially designed rubberized field that is painted with all the features of a regular baseball diamond.

So far, the Miracle Field in Hartsdale is the only such field built entirely with county funds, according to organizers. Westchester spent $525,000 to create the field, which opened last year.

“Every child should have the same opportunity as a typically developed child,” said Stephen Madey, executive director of the Westchester chapter. “This means the world to me. I don’t think words can explain it.”

The opening-day festivities yesterday began with a parade around the parking lot, led by the Westchester County Emerald Society band of bagpipes and drums.

Giuliana Ficuciello was the first to wheel herself up to the plate. The 7-year-old Eastchester girl smacked the ball off the tee and beamed as her volunteer “buddy” Adriana Cocucci, also 7, pushed her around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.

“I was a little nervous at first,” said Giuliana, who has cerebral palsy. “But then, once I hit the home run, I felt better because my friend Adriana here was supporting me a lot and we are friends for life.”

Proud parents watched from the sidelines as the children took turns batting or playing the field.

Saying it was indescribable to watch their children having so much fun, parents wished more programs like the Miracle League were available throughout the region.

“There’s nothing for my boys to do otherwise,” said Rosa Metz of Mount Vernon, the mother of two disabled boys. “These children deserve a better quality of life.”

Thursday, May. 3, 2007

Field of dreams

With his tiny shovel in hand, Colt Stillwell made a dent in the mountain of dirt before him that would soon turn to turf as the Billy Hitchcock Miracle Field moves closer to field formation at West Ridge Baseball Complex.

“Isn’t that something … that’s worth it all isn’t it,” said Councilman Dr. William Lazenby as he clapped for the boy. “If you leave him that shovel, I bet he’d try to move that whole pile.”

Fortunately Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller and Auburn Mayor Bill Ham Jr. gave him a hand. At a glance, Stillwell looked to be maybe 6-years-old but was in fact 14 and a half. He is 42 inches tall and weighs 42 pounds and will remain so. His parents, Benjie and Karen of Opelika, say he was born with a rare genetic gene. Cockayne Syndrome has stunted Colt’s growth and shortened his life span. Karen Stillwell says her son is expected to live to be 20 and could die sooner.

The Stillwells say there are no words to express how grateful they are for the miracle field and what it will mean to their son, Colt, and other area children and adults faced with day-to-day challenges.

“This means he can feel like one of the guys,” Karen Stillwell said. “He’ll ask us now, ‘Am I going to get a Jeep so I can drive my friends around?’ How do you tell him he’ll never get to drive a car?”

Wednesday was an emotional day for the miracle-minded, who had come so far, prayed so hard and worked so long to make a field of dreams possible. It seems like only yesterday when the lights dimmed low and a roomful of Opelika Lions viewed, for the first time, heart-tugging images of special needs children and adults rounding bases and hitting balls. They could have just turned the lights back on, got in their cars, gone home and forgot about it. But that’s not the Lion way. They wasted no time hitting the pavement and asked anyone and everyone within earshot, “Don’t you want to watch this Miracle League video?” Lion presentations were met with unanimous approval from the Opelika City Council, Auburn City Council and Envision Opelika. Soon fundraising events started popping up left and right, and a community responded. Support streamed in from local businesses, civic clubs, churches and individuals.

Councilman Eddie Smith looked out across the field and said the Billy Hitchcock Miracle Field was a culmination of two years of planning, fundraising and meetings.

“This is a beautiful day, a beautiful event,” Smith said.

And it was. Rising star Garrett Miles, a senior at Smiths Station High School, held the miracle audience spellbound Wednesday with his powerful rendition of the National Anthem. His deep country voice felt like the Grand Ole Opry. Black cowboy boots tipped in silver completed the star-studded picture as Scout Troop No. 7 held the American Flag high. Miles, who was born legally blind, might not have seen the obvious awe on people’s faces but surely he felt it.

And later a prayer led by Miracle Vice-Chair Jim Allen seemed to capture the spirit of the miracle field.

“It’s great to be involved in something bigger than yourself – this was certainly bigger than all of us,” Allen said.

Once complete, the Billy Hitchcock Miracle Field will be the largest miracle field in the world.

As folks walked off the field and headed home, Miracle Chair Jim Rew could be seen silhouetted in the dug out staring out at an empty field. He raised his arms high over his head and yelled out, “It’s over the fence!”

And it was.

Wednesday, May. 2, 2007

‘Miracle’ project is about community

The idea behind “Miracle League” fields for disabled children is simple: Give a chance to play baseball to kids who otherwise probably never would have the opportunity.

Since the Rotary Clubs of Rockdale County, Ga., launched a project in their backyard 10 years ago, the concept has taken off. As of a year ago, there were 41 specially constructed rubberized fields across the country and another 61 under construction.

Now Tallahassee is on deck, with both of our local governments stepping up to the plate.

The fields enable children in wheelchairs and other disabled kids to play ball. That’s no small thing: Disabled people frequently find that access to a wide range of recreational activity is extremely limited to them.

Here in Tallahassee, it’s not a done deal yet. The county has committed $75,000 to the project, and the city has pledged the use of Field No. 3 at the Messer North Softball Complex, as well as utilities and maintenance services.

The Tallahassee Kiwanis Club, which is coordinating local fundraising for the $250,000 project, still needs another $150,000 to make this “Miracle” for special-needs children happen.

But Tallahasseeans frequently remind themselves that this is a special community. Here’s a chance to make it even more so.

Thursday, Apr. 12, 2007

Miracle League up to bat

Children with developmental and mental disabilities got to live their dream of playing baseball Saturday.

That’s when Miracle League of Pensacola opened its season with hours of pitching and hitting for children at Miracle League Park.

The league is designed so that children with special needs can participate in America’s pastime thanks to a special surface that permits them to use their wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment.

“Every child gets a buddy, and the buddy’s purpose is to help a child with what they can’t do, no more,” said Larry Thompson, founder and vice president.

Michele Hartley, whose son Mark Hartley, 13, has Down syndrome, said at Miracle League, the game adapts to each child’s skill level. Mark jumped up and down with arms extended when he scored the first run.

“They (the children) definitely improve,” Michele Hartley said. “You can see the game in them and the improvement.”

Thompson said the league helps the children’s motor skills and self-esteem. Most of the children start the season hitting only 20 percent of the pitches, he said. By the end of the season, that increases to 80 percent.

Packy Mitchell, director of facilities for Mitchell Homes, helped Thompson build Miracle League Park.

“It’s by far the most rewarding effort I’ve ever been involved in,” Mitchell said. “To see the smiles on their faces, doing what the big leaguers do.”

Professional softball player Charity Butler, a Tate High School graduate and organizer of Champ Camp Softball Clinic, also was present. Butler received a plaque for raising about $5,000 through her clinic and donating it to the Miracle League.

“This is my first official Miracle League game and it’s amazing,” Butler said.

Paul Hinson, umpire for The Miracle League, said he never misses a game and refuses to be paid for his effort.

“I get way too much pleasure out of it,” Hinson said. “Seeing these kids smile means more than anything they can pay me.”

Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2007

Group tries to make a Miracle happen in Hamilton

Everything about a Miracle League field is flat, except the emotion surrounding it.

Founded in Atlanta seven years ago as a way to give physically disabled children an opportunity to play baseball, the Miracle League has been such an overwhelming and empowering success that it has spread into 42 states with 170 chapters servicing more than 25,000 players.

And if a group of local men has its way, a new chapter and will be sprouting in Butler County sometime soon.

Kim Nuxhall, the executive director of the Joe Nuxhall Character Education Fund, and former Bengals kicker Doug Pelfrey, founder of the Kicks for Kids organization, are hoping to build a Miracle League field in Joyce Park at the site of the old batting cages.

“A big piece of my heart is right there on that land,” said Nuxhall, who owned and operated the batting cages from 1976-91. “My entire summers were spent there for 15 years, so to have something like this follow something like that is really neat.”

Miracle League fields, which can cost between $185,000 to $230,000 to build, feature a rubberized turf to help keep all participants safe. The bases and pitcher’s mound are flat to allow easy navigation for players who use wheelchairs, walkers or crutches.

Miracle League games follow five standard rules:

• Every player bats once each inning;

• All base runners are safe;

• Every player scores a run before the inning is over;

• Community children and volunteers serve as “buddies” to assist the players;

• Each team and each player wins every game.

“Miracle League baseball does the same thing that regular leagues do for mainstream children, which is provide an opportunity for friendship and an opportunity to take your limitations to another level,” said Diane Alford, executive director and co-founder of the Miracle League. “There are countless testimonials of children who started out using wheelchairs and walkers who are now able to get around the bases on their own without those vehicles.”

Pelfrey, whose Kicks for Kids organization owns the batting cages and adjacent land in Joyce Park, said that while things are still in the early planning stages, the idea has him excited.

“It fits in with our mission,” Pelfrey said. “And that’s to provide opportunities for kids who are mentally or physically challenged or challenged by the environment in which they live.”

Charley Frank, director of the Reds Community Fund and Reds Rookie Success League, also is on board.

“All three of us have been very moved and inspired by the Miracle League message,” Frank said.

Miracle League to build facility in Zanesville

New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig once said, “There is no room in baseball for discrimination. It is our national pastime and a game for all.”

That quote defines the mission of the Miracle League organization.

The league originated in Conyers, Ga. in 1997 with the idea to give physically disabled children an opportunity to play baseball. Though the initial league took three years before the first teams took the field, the organization has grown into approximately 145 leagues nationwide.
Fred Grant, thanks to his son, brought the idea to Zanesville. Grant heard about the league from his son who lives in Georgia and as a member of the Rotary Club presented the idea during the monthly Civic Club Coalition meeting. After Grant’s presentation, the community representatives from various clubs like Kiwanis, Lions Club, and others decided the project was worth undertaking.

“When we first saw the project, we knew we needed to present it,” Grant said. “Without (the other groups’) support, we probably wouldn’t have gone ahead with it.”

The Muskingum Valley area is an ideal location. According to the U.S. Census, over 9,000 handicapped youths from ages five to 19 live in southeast Ohio which includes Muskingum, Coshocton, and Perry counties. Though the number cannot be broken down to the exact handicaps, project chairman Caribeth Legats stated who is eligible to play.

“Any child excluded from playing in any regular baseball league will be able to play in the Miracle League,” she said.

Currently, the Miracle League of Muskingum Valley Ohio is still in the beginning stages. The group has picked out a location to build the complex behind MR/DD Starlight facilities and the County Home on Newark Road. The property has been dedicated but are waiting for the writing of the lease.

Along with getting the land, the group is looking to raise funds to cover the $200,000 cost by May. Part of the money will come from an Ohio Department of Natural Resources grant since the field will consist of recycled rubber while the rest will be raised from private donations that are tax deductible since the group is classified as an incorporated and non-profit organization.

As the organization wades through the legal and fundraising aspects, they are reaching out to the community. Legats has presented the idea to several groups including a local parents support group. The overwhelming reaction was one of excitement including one mother who can finally give an answer to her son’s question.

“I had one mother who couldn’t believe we were doing this. She told me her child always asked when he could play ball every time they passed Y-City, and she always answered, ‘someday,’ ” Legats said. “When she heard about the league, she couldn’t wait to go home and tell her son he could play.”

The league hopes to break ground this spring and hopes to follow in the footsteps of the first Ohio-based league in Dublin. The Dublin League began two years ago and has watched participation double from 100 in year one to over 200 last season. With the numbers increasing, it has developed into a two-level league based on each kid’s ability. Of course, Zanesville will take it one step at a time but hopes it can repeat Dublin’s success.

“Our first year is to have a similar program and see each kid’s ability,” Legats said. “We hope to be able to have two levels based on ability, but each year, we will adjust to our players’ abilities.”

While large numbers is one objective, the main purpose is to build the children’s confidence. The field is a smooth, rubberized surface with painted bases and baselines so no obstacles will obstruct runners or fielders. The teams play on a smaller field with baselines about 50 feet, and the outfield fence no further away than 125 feet from home plate so players can hit the ball over the fence. The best part is each kid gets to hit and score every inning so everyone wins.

“The goal is to build self-esteem for these kids,” Grant said. “When someone has a loss of limb or some faculty, one of the chief things is to bring that confidence back.”

Another aspect is building relationships on and off the field. Each player is paired with a able-bodied volunteer “buddy” for the entire season who helps them hit, run, and field. The league is working with local organizations for buddies but does not allow parents because the organization wants to give parents the chance to sit back and watch their children have fun.

“From everyone that has participated as buddies, they all say the bond between buddy and child is unbelievable,” Legats talked about her conversations with several buddies in the Dublin league. “We just hope we can help the kids develop friendships with someone special.”

Tuesday, Mar. 13, 2007

Making America’s pastime accessible to all

It’s been said that for many, the game of baseball is more than just a game. It provides an opportunity to be special.

For some, though, it’s just an opportunity to be normal — to be just another kid.

That’s why Todd Mooney was excited to enter his son Keegan into the Miracle League last summer –– a baseball league for children with special needs –– despite the fact he’d be traveling from Lakeville to Blaine on game-day.

“We’re always looking for sports that are adaptive to our son,” said Mooney, “we just wanted him to participate as any typical child would.”

Soon, Keegan will be able to play baseball closer to home. On Feb. 5, the Lakeville City Council endorsed a plan to build a Miracle Field at King’s Park where children with disabilities will be able to safely play baseball.

The City Council approved the donation of four acres of land at the youth baseball complex, which currently has eight regular baseball fields at Dodd Road and 185th Street.
Realizing a need

On a sun drenched, summer day two years ago, Brian Roseen and his 13-year-old son were playing catch at Quigley-Sime Park in Lakeville.

While playing, a young boy in a wheelchair rolled up to their field.

“We tried to find a way for him to play with us,” Roseen said. “The field, though, just wasn’t made for it. My son said, ‘That’s not fair.’ I agreed.”

That experience prompted Roseen, who was already active with the Lakeville Baseball Association, to begin searching for information about baseball fields for children with disabilities.

He soon stumbled upon the Miracle League of Minnesota, a nonprofit group providing opportunities for children with disabilities ages 3 to 19 to play baseball.

“I wondered what it’d be like to have a league and field like that in Lakeville,” Roseen said. “So I made some phone calls.”
Spreading a dream

Kevin Thoresen was lounging in a hotel room in Arizona two-years ago when he was struck with an epiphany.

“I was laying there watching TV when I saw a special on the Miracle League,” he said. “I’ve got children with special needs so it struck me real hard.”

It didn’t take long for Thoresen to launch the Miracle League of Minnesota, an off-shoot from the national Miracle League organization.

Miracle Fields are different than a regular baseball fields because they’re designed with a cushioned, rubberized surface, wheelchair access to the field and dugouts, and a flat, barrier free surface to help visually impaired players or players in wheelchairs.

The Miracle League utilizes the special fields and provides children with mental and/or physical challenges an opportunity to play baseball as a team member in an organized league.

“Children with disabilities don’t typically get to play organized sports,” Thoresen said. “This just seemed like a wonderful opportunity and something we needed in Minnesota.”

Each child in the league is paired with a volunteer who then helps them play the game. Thoresen calls it a buddy system.

Thoresen now serves as executive director for the Miracle League of Minnesota, and was the man whom Roseen contacted last year about bringing a Miracle League to Lakeville.

“We had just launched our first league in Blaine when [Roseen] called,” Thoresen said. “I told him, ‘We’ve been waiting for your phone call.”

The Miracle League, under Thoresen’s leadership had just spearheaded the construction of a Miracle Field and league in Blaine and were looking for other places in Minnesota to set up leagues.

“The fields and the leagues are funded through donations,” Thoresen said. “We can’t just go around soliciting fields. We wait for communities to contact us.”

Lakeville, it turns out, is just one of a few communities who have jumped on board the Miracle League band wagon.

Mankato, Rochester and Minnetonka have all begun construction or have target dates for completion for Miracle Fields, and Thoresen said that he’s been working with Duluth and Sioux Falls, South Dakota to bring fields to those communities.
Bringing a miracle to Lakeville

Lakeville’s parks and Recreation Director Steve Michaud said that the Miracle Field at King’s park will serve most of the communities south of the river.

“There are a lot of special needs children in the community,” he said. “This is just another way for the city to meet the needs of a very progressive and diverse population base.”

The Lakeville Baseball Association is not only in charge of soliciting donations for the project, but will ultimately run the Miracle League that calls the field home. The city will be in charge of maintaining the field.

Actual construction of the filed will be a two phase project. The first phase will encompass construction of the field at an estimated cost of $400,000; the second will improve seating, the entrance and landscaping and cost and additional $400,000.

Phase one, Michaud said, could be completed this fall, but nothing is set in stone.

In addition to baseball, the fields could be used for other sports such as soccer and basketball, Michaud said.

Roseen said that while working on this project he has been blown away by the cooperation and commitment to the project exhibited by both the city of Lakeville and the Miracle League of Minnesota.

“I’ve never heard the word ‘No,” Roseen said. “Never a ‘I don’t think so,’ or ‘We can’t do that.’ It’s been the coolest thing.”

Mayor Holly Dahl was enthusiastic about the project at the Feb. 5 Council meeting.

“Kids are near and dear to my heart,” she said. “It’s wonderful and it’s something that parents in our community have asked for.”

Heather Thelen’s 9-year-old son Ben played in Blaine last year, but she admits the prospects of watching him play close to home in their community excites her.

“This is another way for him to be accepted,” she said. “Now he can make some friends here in Lakeville. My heart is just filled with warmth.”

Mooney said that his son Keegan will be playing ball in Blaine again this year but he is also looking forward to the opportunity for his son to play baseball closer to home.

Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007

Baseball league for disabled kids a ‘Miracle’ play

Julia and Jeff Kadel got the idea to start a baseball league for disabled kids after watching a TV program about a national association that oversees “Miracle Leagues” throughout the United States.

After about two years of fund-raising, the newly formed Miracle League of Delray Beach has enough money to start building a playing field. A rubberized field with painted-on bases that can be used by children who use wheelchairs or walkers will be built this summer at Miller Park on Southwest Fourth Avenue. Visually impaired players will use balls that beep so they can find them.

Registration begins next week for the league’s first season, which starts on April 28 and will be played on a temporary field at Miller Park.

“Now comes the fun part,” Julia said. “This is what it’s all about.”

The league’s board of directors had hoped to get to this point by October, but by the end of 2006, they had raised only about half of what was needed to start building on the park land that the city set aside for the Miracle League.

Around the same time, County Commissioner Mary McCarty was hearing requests from organizations in her district wanting a piece of a $3 million pie previously earmarked for the now-defunct cartoon museum in Boca Raton. The Miracle League was one of them.

Julia still has the message McCarty left on her cellphone on Jan. 10 saying she was going to match the $250,000 the league had raised.

“I started dancing around the house and acting like a little girl,” she said. “I was just speechless, which is unusual.”

Finally, the dream the New Jersey couple had to give back to their adopted Delray Beach was coming true.

The Kadels sent in their $500 check to join the National Miracle League Association in December 2004. There are currently three active Miracle League fields in Florida, with a few more in the works, and 48 in the country, including Puerto Rico.

After the Kadels enrolled in the association, they presented the idea to the city commission. The city loved the idea and gave them $10,000 and set aside a piece of land in Miller Park for league games.

They assembled a board, which includes former city commissioner Pat Archer, and started looking for donations. The league held two fund-raisers at Miller Park. Local businesses and organizations donated money, a fence, landscaping and a scoreboard.

Then last summer, they got a donation for $150,000 from developer Anthony Pugliese III. The field will be named for his grandson, Anthony Pugliese V.

“It’s been a true grass-roots effort,” Jeff said.

The local league will continue to raise money to cover rising construction costs, field maintenance, insurance and to keep costs down for the families of the 5- to 19-year-olds who will be playing.

Besides money, the league needs coaches and “buddies,” who are able-bodied children who volunteer to help the players during the two-inning games.

The buddies were one of the features that drew the Kadels to the league, because they want to involve their three sons: Jackson, 3; Zachary, 8; and Connor, 12.

“We wanted to find something we could all do together as a family, and we love sports,” said Julia, 37, a personal trainer and cheerleading coach. Jeff, 39, who owns a mortgage company, coaches almost every sport his elder sons play, including baseball, basketball, football and soccer.

The family visited the Miracle League in St. Petersburg last spring and the Kadels said their kids had a great time interacting with the players.

“I didn’t look at it so much as a baseball game,” Jeff said. “It was more like a party with baseball.”

Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006

Baseball program brings children with special needs together

Gerardo Rojas let everyone know he’d be pitching as soon as he walked onto the grounds of Harlingen Field.

“You’ll finally see me on the pitcher’s mound,” Rojas, 12, said.

Rojas, who is autistic, joined about 25 other children with disabilities Saturday in the Miracle Kids Super Baseball Event sponsored by Valley Baptist Health System.

Waiting for the Little Astros vs. Little Rangers game to start, Rojas got a little antsy.

“I’ve already waited,” he said to his buddy for the day, a Texas Youth Commission volunteer.

Rojas’ mother, Leticia Padilla, said her son was reacting more positively than the last time he participated in the baseball event.

“He was really upset about not being able to pitch,” she said. “He just walked right off the field. But he looks super excited today, he used to be afraid of everyone.”

Rojas, of La Feria, is a big fan of baseball and told his mother how excited he was about participating in the Miracle Kids of South Texas game, she said.

“He just loves to be on that mound,” Padilla said. “He wanted to wear a uniform today.”

The first Miracle League baseball program was formed in Atlanta in 1998. The Valley Baptist Outpatient Rehabilitation Program — which treats special-needs children — brought the idea to the Rio Grande Valley in 2002 and the Miracle Kids of South Texas was formed.

The organization has been sponsoring sporting events for special-needs children since then.

Once Saturday’s game began, with boys and girls on each team, Gabby Torres made the day’s first homerun.

“Go Gabby! Go!” her mother and brothers shouted.

Torres, 10, was one of the first participants to join the baseball game when the program was brought to Harlingen, according to her mother, Norma Torres.

“We’re very grateful they have this for the children with special needs,” Torres said. “Gabby really enjoys it.”

After running across home plate, Torres, who has Down syndrome, danced along with the music played over the speakers.

“She knew what we were coming for because she got her baseballs ready to have the players sign,” Torres said. “This is their day and there’s no loser, everyone’s a winner.”

Former Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard and Rafael Santana, the shortstop for the New York Mets’ 1986 World Series championship team, greeted the children and signed autographs. The former professional baseball players were in Harlingen to participate in a youth baseball clinic that was at Harlingen Field on Saturday.

Seven-year-old Nathaniel Bridgeman of Harlingen got the greatest gift for his birthday, his parents said: the chance to play this favorite sport.

“He’s super excited about getting the opportunity to play and meet the professional players,” Angie Bridgeman said. “This is just too special of an opportunity for him.”

Activities like these keep Coakley Middle School sixth-grader Eric Factor’s spirits high, his mother Liana Soliz said.

“There’s not many things for these kids to do,” she said. “It’s a great organization and I couldn’t wait until Eric could get involved.”

Factor, who is in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, was led by one of the Texas Youth Commission teenagers who acted as “buddies” to the players who couldn’t throw a ball or swing a baseball bat, said Brian Borchardt, VBHS senior director of development.

Running toward home base with his buddy for the third time, Rojas shouted, “I love this game of baseball!”

Players were given medals for their participation and treated to a meet-and-greet with the former professional baseball players.

“I enjoy sharing my time with these people who need our support,” Santana said in-between posing for photos and signing baseballs. “Every time I get a chance to give my support I do.”

Thursday, Sep. 21, 2006

Miracle League offers disabled children the chance to play ball

He’s named after former Major League pitcher Nolan Ryan. He wears No. 4 for the Yankees, just like former Bronx Bomber great Lou Gehrig.

Six years after Nolan Ryan Turner was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that left him without muscle control below his knees, he played a baseball game.

At Adams Elementary School, the Miracle League of the Triangle built a $500,000 baseball diamond for children with disabilities.

Rubberized material that’s entirely flat makes it easy to use with crutches or a wheelchair. There’s a dugout that isn’t really dug out, and a pitcher’s mound that’s more of a painted white circle.

Eighty-seven players in the new league come from around the Triangle and as far away as Pinehurst. They have disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to spinal cord injuries and blindness.

In the Miracle League, every batter gets a hit, every runner gets on base, and the last at-bat in each of the two innings gets a home run.

But the thrill of baseball remains the same.

Nolan is still learning baseball: “I’m not short,” he said of being assigned to play shortstop.

In the bottom of the first inning Saturday, the ball was placed on a tee as Nolan walked to home plate. He used a pair of arm braces loosely attached at his elbows.

At the plate, he steadied himself as the braces dangled. His first swing was a little low.

“Foul ball!” yelled the umpire. (There are no strikes.)

His father, Ken Turner, shouted encouragement as his son got ready for a second try.

Smack! The ball went straight down the middle of the field.

A yellow-shirted adult buddy who helps players get around the bases moved the tee out of the way, and Nolan turned toward first base. Using the braces like ski poles, he propelled himself to the base in a half-dozen leaps.

The next batter was last, and Nolan scored on a home run.

The first inning was over, and the youngster stayed on home plate, beaming a wide grin at no one in particular.

His coach, grandfather, and others like to remind the young Yankee that he’s wearing the same number as Gehrig, who played in 2,130 consecutive games before an incurable form of paralysis forced him to retire.

It was clear Gehrig’s not the only ballplayer who considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”

Inside Good News Blog