By Kristina Marie Smelley
Ten-year-old Nicholas Shafer doesn’t speak, but that won’t stop him from letting his mom know how much he loves baseball.
“He went to his closet several times over the last two months to put on his Padres jersey and grab his ball bag,” his mom, Lenore, says with a smile.
Nicholas plays with the District 4 Challenger Baseball League in Aloha, which is part of Little League International. Both the Challenger Baseball League and the Miracle League of Vancouver give special needs children and adults a chance to play ball.
“Everyone gets to play and everyone has a chance to bat,” says Dan Vaandering, president of District 4 Challenger Baseball League. “Our kids love wearing their team jerseys and caps, and just getting out there to play in the spring like everybody else. At the end of the day, there’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment that is heartwarming for all to watch.”
Vaandering’s son Alex played on the team until he unexpectedly passed away five years ago at age 11. Today, Alex’s legacy lives on as Vaandering continues to lead and help more players with special needs find joy in playing baseball. In addition to the “junior” league, which is for ages 4-18, Vaandering is starting a new “senior” Challenger league this spring for players age 15 and up, giving all children the chance to play into adulthood.
“We encourage all our friends and family to come out to the games and cheer the kids on,” says Dan and Amy Green, parents of a Challenger player. “Each child gets up to bat twice and fields twice. You will see kids in wheelchairs, with walkers, with therapy dogs and even just average-looking kids out there swinging bats.”
Bats used may be regular aluminum bats, or it may be larger plastic bats. Whether the ball is hit from a gentle pitch or a standing tee, each player swings until he connects and then runs in his own special way around those bases, say the Greens.
Elly Cartright’s son Mason looks forward to playing every year. “They understand and accept whatever participation level Mason can put forward and there is no judgment. Mason feels part of the team and strong sense of community,” Cartright says. “Dan and the wonderful coaches are our community heroes.”
The Miracle League of Vancouver offers a similar program but with an 8-week baseball season twice a year, in the spring and the fall. There is no age limit and people with all abilities are also welcome to play.
“Our amazing volunteers, coaches and ‘buddies’ give every child the opportunity to participate with no obstacles,” says Craig Mills, executive director of the Miracle League of Vancouver, who also has a grandchild on the team. “It’s all about the kids. The best part is the memories they are making having fun playing baseball.”
Both leagues use a “buddy” program, pairing volunteer players from the community with special needs players to help and encourage them during the game. Buddies help the players bat, navigate the bases and cover the positions on the field so parents can focus on watching their children play.
“My son Matthew has severe autism, is non-verbal, struggles with motor planning and was just diagnosed with epilepsy,” says Julie Hillyard. “When he started playing with the Miracle League two years ago, he refused to hold the bat and couldn’t care less about the ball. Now he holds the bat and runs around the bases holding the hands of his buddy.”
Hillyard’s oldest son loves to be Matthew’s buddy, and she says, “I have watched him just glow with pride as he helps Matthew be successful. At the final game of this last year, I watched Matthew from the stands with tears in my eyes. He does not understand the game, but he participated in every aspect of it with the assistance of his older brother.”
Volunteer coaches and buddies find that their own lives are touched by the kids they serve. They come from all walks of life and organizations, including church groups, high schools, universities and corporations. The Challenger League schedules Little League teams to come out and play as buddies.
“I learned that not everyone works the same way, and it was fun to try to figure out what worked for each person,” says buddy Katelyn Bickford, a player on the Willow Creek Little League softball team last year. “Just because these are special needs kids doesn’t mean they’re different when it comes to sports. They still wanted to play and compete just like everyone else. Being a buddy was very rewarding to me.”
Matt Olstead, a senior at Union High School and Showtime Baseball player, has been volunteering as a buddy for the Miracle League since he was 12 years old.
“I originally got involved with this program when a family friend, whose son has autism, started playing. It’s been a great experience helping the kids swing the bat and field the ball. I love the smile on their faces and watching them have the time of their lives playing baseball. It’s a great way to help your community, too.”
Coaches play an important role and provide parents with the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the game.
“This is one of those few moments that we get to sit on the sidelines and cheer for our child like the parent of a typical kiddo would do. It’s our moment of ‘normal’ and we treasure it,” Hillyard says.
Bridgett Weddle has enjoyed coaching for the Challenger Orioles team for many years.
“The kids are truly inspirational,” Weddle says. “When I first started coaching, I thought I was going to be able to teach the kids something new and give them the gift of learning to play America’s all-time sport: baseball. I learned it was the kids who actually taught me to think of life as a baseball game. Have fun, be patient and most of all relax and make those connections to those who surround us.”
She adds that many of the kids struggle with day-to-day activities that we take for granted, but they try their hardest with little to no fear.
“It makes me feel proud to watch them grow year after year, and see how they have overcome the daily challenges of life,” she says.
Both leagues provide uniforms, team photos and special events for families. They depend on many sponsors and volunteers to help them throughout the year. The Challenger League holds a Jamboree weekend of baseball, barbecue, games and prizes in May at Alpenrose Dairy in Portland for all the teams. There is also an exhibition game in August during the Little League Softball World Series.
The Miracle League of Vancouver also holds family events throughout the year. Miracle League sponsors have made it easier on families by subsidizing the cost and lowering the fee to $25. The organization is also working toward building a special rubberized field at Pacific Community Park that would make playing baseball easier for those who use wheelchairs or crutches.
The field would also be equipped with accessible dugouts and lights for playing at night. This $2 million project may break ground later this year, according to Mills.
“Challenger baseball has changed our lives,” says mom Laura Traw. “When our son was diagnosed with autism, we were told all the things that he couldn’t or wouldn’t ever do. Playing baseball on a team that accepts him for his abilities and recognizes his will and efforts, has allowed him and us to have our own ‘field of dreams.’ Can’t wait to play ball!”
Kristina Marie Smelley is a Portland freelance writer and co-leader of a local support group called REST for moms with children who experience special needs. She is married with two children, one with autism. She is also a local singer-songwriter currently working on a collection of life-skills songs for children with special needs.