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 Samantha and her parents, Kirk and Sue. They live together in Urbandale, IA. Samantha is 22 years old and has been playing in the Challenger Baseball League since 2003, 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 challenges 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 those with intellectual or developmental disabilities like those in Challenger. The Urbandale Challenger League will offer an adult league on the new field that does not age people out, so Samantha will be able to play on the new field for as long as she wants.
Samantha likes to go to Challenger games because she has fun, sees friends, and gets to go to the concession stand.
“I have learned to hit and catch the ball,” Samantha says as she demonstrates how to correctly swing the bat. “I learned how to run the bases, to stay on the bases when we get there and to run when the other player is up to bat and hits the ball. I like when my teammates talk to me and tell me I did a good job and cheer me on.”
Samantha’s father, Kirk, said the Challenger League gives a very nice opportunity for the community to come together and for the special needs players to play just like other kids around the world.
“Samantha has had two brothers that have played in Urbandale Little League, and she was always out there, she lived out there,” Kirk said. “And then through Challenger she finally got an opportunity to actually participate.”
Samantha has a developmental 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. Sue, Samantha’s mother, said it takes Samantha a longer time than most people to process things. She has a very difficult time with understanding numbers and counting, money, math, and telling time, which she will probably never understand.
“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 said. “Things like that she just doesn’t get. Some of the simple things that you take for granted you can’t with her, she just doesn’t know.”
“She has also done things that I never imagined she’d be able to do, though,” Kirk said. “For years, we’d have to get her ready every morning and make her lunch for the day, and now she does it all by herself. And she can use her iPad. I can’t use her iPad, and I’m the tech guy at work!”
Sue says Samantha is very social, very friendly and outgoing, and she can talk to anybody. Despite her disability, she has a pretty good memory regarding certain things. She remembers a lot of encounters with people—even if she has only encountered them once, she usually remembers them.
“We hope that at some point down the road, while she may never be self-supportive, she will have a meaningful job in the community,” Kirk said. “I talked to one of her classmates’ parents at the store today, he’s working at Hy-Vee, only 8 hours a week, but he’s enjoying it, mom and dad are enjoying it, just seeing him thrive. That is what we’d like to see Samantha do.”
Samantha’s parents also would like to see a revitalization of the Challenger League that Samantha plays in. They says this new field is a chance to help strengthen the special needs section of the community. When Samantha first started out with Challenger, they were using four fields at the Little League complex with about 14-18 kids per field. Since then, Samantha’s parents say numbers have dwindled, drastically. Kirk and Sue say that the experience of playing in the league is special, and they hope more parents and children get to try it out now with the new field.
“We haven’t had a person in a wheelchair or a walker or crutches or canes for several years, and I think this new field will hopefully bring some of these kids either back or allow some new and younger children who are disabled in that respect to be introduced to the sport,” Sue said.
Kirk says it was exciting when there were four fields, all of them filled up, and all the kids were excited to get there.
“They’d come out, we had matching caps and jerseys for them, which were double layered and it was like 200 degrees outside. It was so darn hot,” Kirk said, laughing. “But the kids didn’t complain. They’d be excited to line up, and they’d line up and we’d count them off, one, two, one, two, to get them on a team. It was just exciting to see the grins on their faces and the fun that they were anticipating.”
Kirk’s face is lit up as he tells this story, and he continues to reminisce on the good times Challenger League brought his family, and the future ones this field will create.
“Man, we used to have the high school cheerleaders come out and help on a Sunday, one time they had the boys baseball team come out and help, Valley softball did… I mean, it took that many kids to help, because a lot of the kids out there need somebody with them all the time, just by their side in case maybe the ball comes flying at them or something. I want to see that on this new field.”
“I hope the kids who do other sports through Challenger will come back out for baseball, because they’ll have fun,” Sue said. “There is a big community to draw from. The potential is there, especially with this new field.”
Right now during the summer, Samantha looks forward to playing in her Challenger League games. She says other kids should join because they would have fun and Challenger would help them become good players on the baseball field.
“Samantha struggles probably more than any Challenger player when it comes to hitting the ball. It’s frustrating to watch,” Kirk said. “But there have been a few times where she has connected. And that’s pretty exciting, because when she does, everybody cheers. Even the other players know that Samantha struggles to the point where eventually you bring out a tee and she has to hit off the tee. But when she gets a hit it’s pretty exciting. And it might just drop right in front of home plate or it might be a foul ball, but it’s a hit and if she gets the darn hit she runs, no matter what!”
“It is exciting to see when the kids get a hit, even if the ball goes this far,” Kirk says, holding out his hands a foot apart. “The grin on their face, they run, they yell and scream and high five everybody, and it’s pretty neat to see. It warms my heart when Samantha gets all excited and happy. I think that other parents would feel the same way to see their kid do that, too.”