“I want our children to know what it is like to be on a team, make friends, and play a game that is tailored to each individual person,” says Kari Saunders, Somerset. Saunders has been hard at work to bring Challenger Baseball to the Annapolis Valley this summer.
According to the website, Challenger Baseball offers an opportunity for children with cognitive or physical disabilities to enjoy the thrill of playing baseball, being part of a team, developing physical and social skill plus all the benefits of participation in baseball at a level structured to their abilities. Games are played in a fun, safe environment where no score is kept.
Saunders became involved with the team because two of her children have exceptionalities. She has a five-year-old with autism, and a four-year old who has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism.
“I could see how much my younger son wanted to play ball as he sat watching his older brother play last year, but due to him being an extreme flight risk as well as developmentally delayed I knew it would never be possible for him,” says Saunders.
This is when she started making phone calls and sending emails and discovered Randy Crouse who organizes Challenger Baseball in Antigonish, who came down for a meeting. From there, Saunders has taken the idea and run with it.
Saunders now has a group of volunteer parents who are helping to organize the team, such as Melanie and Doug Jackson, Currys Corner.
Melanie Jackson first heard about Challenger Baseball when her cousin’s seven-year-old son with Pitt-Hopkins syndrome started playing in Antigonish.
“He absolutely loves the program,” says Jackson. “He and his family even travelled to Toronto for the National Challenger Baseball Jamboree that the Jays Care Foundation and the Toronto Blue Jays host annually.”
Jackson’s seven-year old autistic son, Ewan, is a flight risk, so participating on a traditional sports team would not be possible without one-to-one supervision, she says.
“Our son loves attending the SMILE program at Acadia, but it ends in April and won’t restart until the fall, so it’s nice to have a similar opportunity during the summer,” says Jackson.
There are not many opportunities for organized sports for special needs children. According to Sandy Wing from the Annapolis Valley Chapter of Autism NS, the chapter does offer a summer day camp for children and youth with autism with one-to-one support, otherwise, there is the SMILE program at Acadia, Special Olympics and Free Spirit Therapeutic Riding.
“I think it will make for an excellent opportunity for all kids with exceptionalities to participate in a recreational activity,” says Wing. “And it will be wonderful for the buddies, too, as they will get to know some pretty special people.”
To make this program work, Saunders says Challenger Baseball requires volunteer buddies over the age of 16 who can commit to the summer for Wednesday evenings in the Wolfville area. Volunteers will need to complete a criminal record as well a vulnerable sector check.
Consistency is important, as weekly attendance means everything to the child and their need for routine and structure, says Saunders. They plan to offer a night of training before the season starts so experience is not necessary but is more than welcome.
The more volunteers they group can get, the more children who can play baseball.
“It would be a shame to turn away interested children because we couldn’t find enough buddies,” says Saunders.
Anyone who is interested in having their child as a participant or becoming a buddy for the program is asked to contact Kari Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 902-680-6244.
“I guarantee it will be a rewarding experience,” says Jackson. “Working with people with disabilities is a wonderful way to give back to your community and it will open your eyes to the challenges others face on a daily basis.”