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Challenger little league.

In Little League's Challenger Division, children with disabilities not only play baseball, but become team players.

Our house buzzed with excitement when we learned that our 14-year-old son, Nathan, would finally have the opportunity to wear a Little League uniform. He looked forward to the first game with such enthusiasm that he daily dressed in his uniform and paraded in front of the mirror to admire how much he looked like every other Little Leaguer ...

Nathan catches up with the rest of Pappy's Pizza team while I head for the bleachers. I can hear one of his teammates, Richard Fournier, talking up the game. "I hope all our good hitters show up today," he said. Richard's mom, who is sitting next to me, shares the boy's enthusiasm.

Our conversation is interrupted by the sound of the loudspeaker announcing that the game is about to begin. Pappy's Pizza is up first. We focus on home plate. Richard, #20 - the fastest person in the league - is batting first. Here comes the pitch ... swing ... line drive into left field. Richard burns rubber for a base hit!

Chris is up next. Number 4 is printed on his jersey, but he's #1 in the hearts of all the fans. Chris already had three years in Tee ball to his credit before joining this league. Today this experience pays off. He smacks the ball so hard into center field that he almost hits the catcher's knee pads off.

Pappy's surely prepared for this game and they continue to hit the ball all over the field. After all the team players have a chance at bat, it's their turn in the field. Patty plays first base. The very next batter hits a line drive and slides safely into first base right under her.

Over the loudspeaker we hear that the last runner beat the pitcher to home plate so it's Pappy's turn to bat again. I chuckle as Nathan approaches home plate with a wide grin on his face. He kicks his spikes clean as he emulates his idol, Carlton Fisk. Clutching his bat in his hands, he smacks a single to center field. After drilling three hits and playing four positions, he finally scores a run in the fourth and final inning for his team's game-winning rally. He crosses the plate to the sound of enthusiastic cheers from his teammates and fans who have come to watch. There are post-game handshakes and high-fives with his teammates and all are treated to pizza and drinks.

Nathan and Chris have Down syndrome, and Richard and Patty use wheelchairs - one has muscular dystrophy and the other has cerebral palsy. Yes, these children play in the Little League. No longer do they sit on the sidelines munching popcorn and watching their brothers and sisters compete on the baseball diamond.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that Patty would play organized ball," said Patty's mom, Marjorie Burke. "This past summer she was given that opportunity. It came in the form of Little League's Challenger Division. Patty has seen enough of team sports to last a lifetime. But it was, of course, always for others. Now, for the first time, the question |Does Patty have a game tonight?' was music to our ears and a symphony to hers! Patty was a team member complete with uniform, team schedule and team photo! She relished every minute of being an active, participating member of the Challenger Division. Most of all, it afforded her that special feeling of belonging, which was a terrific boost for her self-esteem."

Previously relegated to the bleachers, children with physical or mental disabilities have been encouraged to take to the field and become part of Little League Baseball's new program called the Challenger Division. According to Dr. Creighton J. Hale, president of Little League Baseball, Little League filled a void when they extended their program to include children with mental or physical disabilities. Even the division's name, Challenger, reflects the children's determination to rise above their disabilities. The name defines the participants' efforts as positive while they learn not only the fundamentals of baseball but how to pull together as a team.

Gearing Up For the Program

For my husband Bob, Little League baseball is one of his most treasured childhood experiences. He had learned responsibility, self-discipline, cooperation and good sportsmanship. We, wanted Nathan to have that same opportunity to learn lessons that would last a lifetime.

For years, Nathan had participated in Special Olympics and we tried to involve him in community sports. As he grew older and community sports became more competitive and skill-oriented, it was increasingly difficult to find a place for him.

Another concern was that if Nathan was allowed to play sports, it was as if people were doing him a favor. Now there was a chance he could belong to the Little League's Challenger Division where he would be accomplishing something. He'd be learning sportsmanship, discipline, teamwork, self-reliance and confidence.

At first we were skeptical about the program and didn't want to become overly excited about something that might not come to fruition. Even though the division was open to any youngster between six and 18 with a physical or mental disability, some parents were reluctant to let their children play. Some of these fears were allayed when we learned the program had been inspired by baseball programs for children with disabilities started by parents as early as 1985. In 1988, the National Little League Headquarters established a task force of experts in sports, medicine, insurance and those who had worked with people with disabilities to develop the Challenger Division of Little Leagile Baseball.

The task force that studied the possibility of injury to children with disabilities who played baseball found that these children did not get hurt any more than other children playing the sport. And to minimize the chance of injury to players, some game modifications were made. One of the division's most innovative safety features is use of the "incrediball," which imitates a baseball when hit or thrown but is made of softer, compressed fabric instead.

Since the primary goal of the program is participation, all nine team members get to bat when their team is up and play the field at least half the game. (Teams can have up to 15 to 20 players.) Games are limited to four innings. Challenger players do not pitch, although a player is assigned to field the pitcher's mound. At higher skill levels, players who can pitch are given the opportunity Each batter gets six swings and has the option of hitting off a tee or swinging at pitches thrown by a coach or a "buddy" The biggest difference between the Challenger Division and other Little League divisions is a feature known as the "buddy system."

A buddy is a volunteer, sibling or other Little Leaguer who assists children with disabilities at bat and/or on the field. They push wheelchairs or retrieve balls that get past a fielder. Whole families get involved in the buddy system. The system has received praise from psychologists, parents and people with disabilities. The buddy program is a real plus not only for the children who might need assistance, but for the buddies giving the assistance, as well. Buddies are more appreciative of the abilities they often take for granted and they also learn to be more understanding and tolerant of children with disabilities. The Challenger program is bridging the gap between the children with and without disabilities in our community.

Initial Reactions

As much as the Challenger Program does for children with disabilities and their buddies, I think it does more for the parents. The games are not only a source of enjoyment but they help parents appreciate what their own children are able to accomplish.

Richard's initial reaction was "I can play ball? They're going to have kids in wheelchairs?" His spirits were so high that not even rain could dampen his enthusiasm. Richard's sister, Sherri, said that if he didn't have baseball, he would be home doing nothing. In the same vein, Nathan's brother, Wess, said, "I used to feel guilty when Nathan didn't have the chance to play any sports. But now Nathan has something to do and I feel proud of him. He does a good job of throwing, catching, running - and especially hitting."

We, too, had many things to be thankful for. It was great knowing that Nathan wasn't going to be judged on his performance. Here he didn't have a label. He was praised for doing his best. He had achieved a new athletic milestone - becoming a baseball player. As the season ended for him, he had mixed emotions. He was disappointed that the program was ending; he wished it could go on all year. On the other hand he was happy. Playing baseball was "radical" to him. He felt proud when he received a trophy along with every other player in the Challenger Division. Less separates Challenger Division players from other divisions of Little League than you might think. Nathan's response to "What do you like best about baseball?" was "Home runs." What Little Leaguer could come up with a better answer?

Challenger Program A Hit!

Task force members and Little League officials agree the key element to the success of the Challenger Division rests with competent adult volunteers who can temper teaching the fundamental skills of baseball with a great deal of understanding and patience. "I've coached baseball for 27 years but the Challenger kids are fun to work with because they are really sincere," said Nathan's coach Thomas Burke, who also umpired. He saw a great deal of improvement. "I was in the position to encourage the kids to take risks and try to bat without the tee. While the parents might object, the kids didn't. They amazed themselves with the success they had. Just to see the smiles on their faces is all worth it."

With the outpouring of community support our season was a great success. The program met its fundamental goal of allowing youngsters the chance to participate in a structured, safe and well-coached program that was a happy experience for all involved.

The Challenger Division, which was launched with five pilot leagues in 1988, has blossomed into 560 leagues all over the United States and Canada with an estimated 20,000 children with disabilities taking part in 1991. Those interested in forming a Challenger Division in their community can start by contacting their local school districts, mental health and other human services agencies to distribute information and to determine if there are enough youngsters with disabilities to participate.

Victoria Leclerc Therrien lives in Bow, N.H., with her husband, Bob, and two sons, 15-year-old Nathan and 12-year-old Wess. Therrien is a thirdgrade teacher at the Auburn Village School. She has a master's degree in education from Notre Dame College. Her article For the Love of Wess appeared in Exceptional Parent in February 1986. The Therrien family is looking forward to the start of another Challenger Baseball season!
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Title Annotation:handicapped children participate in baseball
Author:Therrien, Victoria
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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