Challenge Baseball: No Child is Left Behind
The beep of the ball, the crack of it against the bat, the whirl of the wheelchair tires whizzing toward the base being pushed from behind by a friend. Yes! Take me out to the ball game! Not your typical, vision of athletic prowess, parent screaming in anger, little league ball game but one filled with laughter, camaraderie, cheers from both teams and all parents for every player! No not the typical picture of little league baseball games in America but one that is becoming more common every year.
Nederland Challenge League, the largest of its kind in Texas, has its opening ceremony this coming Saturday, March 19. This league, the Challenge Little League, is the single, fastest growing nationally, caters to those children who are left behind in every other area, the mentally and physically challenged. Of the 137 players they have this year, 17 are from Orange County. Their ages range from four to 21 years old.
“We also have one from Jasper, one from Galveston and one from Starks, La.,” states Coach Scott Ferguson who started with the league nine years ago with his son Joshua, now thirteen. “Are we doing something right? Yes! When parents will drive two hours to allow their child to play on a lowly ball team we are doing something right. We had ten players and two coaches when I came into this program.” His enthusiasm is unquenchable as he speaks about the severity and broad spectrum of disabilities he has coached.
“We have to be able to accommodate each ability and disability. We have had every kind imaginable. Blind players, cerebral palsy, deaf, those with Down Syndrome and autism. Of our 137 players I have about 65 that are autistic and everyone of them is effected differently by their condition.”
The players are cross-coached by four coaches total. Allen Nation is their official announcer, Kerri May is their pitcher, Joel Werner is manager while Scott says he is just ‘dad’. Joshua, his son, was born with Down Syndrome and has been playing since he was four. “There is no other feeling in the world like being out there with my son!”
Challenge League isn’t just about the game. This program isn’t even all about the kids. Parents of a disabled child often become isolated. Particularly if their child has a rare form of a disease or autism which now is estimated to effect one in 110 children in the United States.
“This program is educational, its occupational therapy, it physical therapy, hand to eye coordination. It’s also about getting parents to intermingle. It can be just as much of an education for the parents as it can the kids,” informs Scott, “They may find out about how another parents handles a particular issue that will work better for their child as well. It really isn’t just about playing the game. Our league is about being a family, communication and learning.”
Within their purview of school district, ranging from Port Arthur to Lufkin, there are 15,500 mentally or physically challenged students. Typically this count comes from the public schools mainstreaming, (placing all students in some regular classes and activities), challenged students. Many simply have physical handicaps, while others deals with severe birth defects or mental impairments. The severity of these impairments and their effects can only be felt by the families that deal with their hurt on a daily basis. Minds and emotions are strained, finances are often strained, whether due to medical needs or due to a parent needing to not work away from home to give support to the child around the clock.
Because finances and simply their daily lives are stressed enough, the program is completely paid for through sponsors.
“It is tough enough having a child with a disability without having to worry with paying for a little league program geared for that child,” Scott affirms.
The six teams also use friends and volunteers to get the games played. There are kids who need help with the movement of their wheelchairs or even what most consider the ease of swinging a bat. Photos of their Facebook fan page show dozen of people helping with every child. The sponsorships allow the parents to focus on getting the child into mainstream life activities. There are also tee shirt sales every year that don their logo.
“The Hottest Game in Town” with this year’s being neon green, Coach Scott says, “I want my kids to stand out! To be noticed, to be seen!” He also informs the back of this year’s shirt say, “You Wish You Were This Good!”
“If you look into these children’s eyes, who maybe can’t talk, or hear or see you, it’s amazing! Your child is your passion. All of these kids are mine.” Public relations man or team Dad, his passion is obvious. “When your child is born disabled, you look at them and love them and learn to adjust.” Life styles are adjusted, vacations are adjusted, trips to the market or movie are adjusted. Scott discusses his three steps to living life with someone the world may not see as ‘perfect’. Adjust, adapt and overcome. This is his parenting and coaching strategy.
Accommodation, its what every one of these dedicated coaches, friends, parents and volunteers do, to give a piece of the fun of baseball to every child. A living example of: No Child Left Behind, to use a coined phrase.
“We expect a lot from the community, but we are not selfish,” Scott states with a chuckle, “we want to give back to the community too.”
Approximately 800 people are expected for this coming Saturday’s opening ceremony. Opening ceremony starts at 1:30 p.m. and (fingers crossed) the first crack of the bat at 2 p.m. Coach Scott will make his way from Bridge City with an excited thirteen year old Joshua sitting next to him. He will take his customized batting helmet with him and smile at everyone who is there and he will be ready to play ball with his fellow ball players. He will not worry about winning or losing, he will not worry about what happens at school or what girl might kiss his cheek, he will just play ball, with his dad. Be there. See him. See them all.