Meet Erika and her mother Michelle. They live together in Altoona, IA. Erika is 27 years old and has been playing in Challenger League since 1998, when she was 9 years old. The Challenger League is a separate division of Little League Baseball that was established in 1989 to allow children with physical and mental disabilities to play baseball. Challenger teams are set up according to abilities, rather than age, and can be played as tee ball games, coach pitch, player pitch, or a combination of the three.
The Urbandale Challenger League will play all their games on the new Miracle League Field that is being built. The new field is designed specifically for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The Urbandale Challenger League will offer an adult league on the new Miracle League Field that does not age people out, so Erika will be able to play on the new field for as long as she wants. That is one of the reasons Erika started playing on the Challenger team in the first place—at the time, it was one of the only activities out there that didn’t age out for people with special needs.
“A lot of sports that are run through other programs say they aren’t going to deny them from being on the team, but you know she will probably be sitting on the bench, and not be able to participate,” Michelle said.
Erika was diagnosed around age 7 with severe autism and developmental disabilities making Erika much less independent than other people her age.
“She solely depends on me,” Michelle said. “I get her dressed, I get her up for the day, make her breakfast and everything. It is like she will always be a child.”
Michelle chooses to have Erika live with her at home. They work on being independent, but Erika will never drive, or do many related activities that most people take for granted.
Michelle likes to keep Erika active and involved. Outside of playing baseball, they enjoy going on walks together and participating in Special Olympics sports. Erika does dance and will be dancing at the Iowa State Fair. She also loves Disney movies (Beethoven 2, with Missy and the puppies, is her current favorite), and she loves her books. She brought a Rottweiler puppy’s calendar that Michelle had laminated with her to the meeting. Michelle hands it to Erika and looks up with a knowing smile and says, “That’s one of the many that we have.”
Michelle then pulls out a kind of visual day-planner she uses to help Erika know what they are doing each day. It has stickers picturing activities that can be Velcro-ed to time slots labeled throughout the day.
“Sometimes if you say something is not on her schedule she will snoop through this and put it on her schedule herself,” Michelle said, laughing. “Her favorite place to eat is Long John Silvers. She has put that on there many a time.”
Michelle said that Erika has learned skills that enhance her level of independence by playing on her Challenger team.
“Right now she hits the ball of the tee and then nonchalantly we will walk the bases—we will walk, we won’t run, we will walk—and she does this all independently,” Michelle said, smiling. “And before she would never be able to, but I think that going and sticking with this has made her more independent, and has helped her try to be more mature.”
Michelle said the building of the new field in Urbandale will make it easier to participate for not only them but many other players.
“I think the new field is going to be great for the kids to be able to work on their goals of running the bases and what not,” Michelle said. “The field will be accessible to kids who are learning how to walk, or using their walker or wheelchair and learning to run the bases. And their faces, those kids faces when they're out there…” Michelle paused, lost for words. “It’s just worth a thousand.”
Michelle said she is very glad that Urbandale is finally getting a Miracle League Field.
“I just wish this would have happened 10 or 15 years before!” Michelle said. “I think people are realizing that we can’t isolate these children and young adults with disabilities. They need a life too, they need to be able to get out and do sports and different things.”
Playing on Challenger helps kids of all abilities learn skills like teamwork, communication and being independent. The new field will allow for more children to join a league and work on those abilities.
“I don’t have to go out there on the field with her anymore,” Michelle said. “Erika takes directions from other parents or caretakers, and she does real good. She knows them all by name. The kids learn a lot from each other. They might see their peer doing something, and then they are able to learn to do the same thing. The repetitiveness helps them learn.”
Michelle said the building of the new Miracle League Field will create the opportunity for those with an intellectual or developmental disability to come and participate in Little League, especially since they are not always able to go through their school or their community to do sports.
“It lets them get out there and be with their peers and have fun and not be made fun of because they might walk different, or talk different, or they might have a cane or a wheelchair,” Michelle said. “You know when they are on this field, they probably feel “normal”. And everyone’s cheering for them, and it is a great experience for them.”
Michelle said when Erika was younger, they would have to help her hand over hand with the bat.
“There’s been times when she would be up there, and we would have the ball pitched to her, and then the ball would hit the bat and we would all clap and she would run the bases, and that’s something big, you know,” Michelle said.
When asked why people should donate to the building of the field, Michelle passionately replied that the children with special needs deserve to have the same opportunities that others take for granted.
“This is an expensive project, but it’s so worth it,” Michelle said. “You go out to these public schools, and you’ve got great facilities for these high schools. You’ve got great baseball fields, you’ve got great football fields, tennis courts… what about our children that would benefit more from this Miracle League Field? It’s built on flat ground, no bumps or anything, is handicap accessible for the kids with wheelchairs or walkers or gate trainers…. This field will be great for them. Why shouldn't they have an opportunity to play, too?”
Michelle is looking forward to the future opportunities this new Miracle League field will give to the community, and she hopes others realize the long term benefits it offers as well.
“The high school’s put out all this money, and those kids are only there for four years and then they move on to college... But our children, this is something that will last longer than just 3 or 4 years, because they can stay there as long as they want, you know, maybe into their 30s and 40s,” she said. “This field has the possibility to impact those kids for their entire lives."
Meet Samantha and her parents, Kirk and Sue. Samantha has a mental disability that made it difficult for her to participate in Little League or high school baseball, but Challenger League offers a suitable environment for her to play. Samantha’s disability has never had a 100% accurate diagnosis—she doesn’t meet enough characteristics of any one disability to be fully diagnosed.
“She can sit and watch her brother’s entire baseball game and not necessarily comprehend what’s going on, and then at the end she’ll ask me who won,” Sue, Samantha's mother, said. “She has also done things that I never imagined she’d be able to do, though."
Meet Joel and his parents, Jeff and Nancy. Joel has been diagnosed with Severe Apraxia, Severe ADHD, Hypothyroidism, Developmental delays (Moderate ID or Intellectual Disability), and velopharyngeal insufficiency. It is very difficult for him to speak clearly and impossible for him to make certain sounds, such as ‘K’ and ‘G’. Challenger League and the new Miracle League Field help many kids like Joel build skills to help them achieve their dreams, and allows them to do simple things that people all over the world take for granted, like playing baseball with their friends.
"It’s an opportunity for them to play, no matter what their ability is," Jeff said. "It’s an opportunity for the kid that may not normally be there.”