Rising to the Challenge

Rising to the Challenge

Springfield Challenger baseball league for special-needs children has mushroomed beyond expectations.

Eddie Garretson, the man who started the Springfield Challenger baseball league for children with disabilities, has never had any disabled children of his own. "It's just something I really love, and it means a lot to me to be a part of these families' lives," Garretson said.

As the league finishes its 15th season this month, its membership has grown from nine in 1993 to about 230, making it the largest Challenger league in the country. It has also spawned two other groups — Eddie's Club, a fall and winter recreational club made up largely of Challenger players, and Challenged Moms, a sort of support group for mothers of children with disabilities.

Membership for all three groups draws not only from Springfield but also from around Fairfax County, Alexandria, and Prince William and Loudoun counties, said Garretson.

Challenger Baseball was started, in affiliation with National Little League, in 1989. Garretson said he saw a Challenger game in Dumfries in 1992 and decided to start a Springfield league the next year, in cooperation with the West Springfield and Central Springfield Little Leagues. He had been involved with Little League and with the Special Olympics, and he had volunteered at the Northern Virginia Training Center, a residential facility for the severely disabled.

Springfield Challenger is broken into two co-ed leagues — one for children 12 and younger, and one for ages 13 and older. In the younger league, players have "buddies" who may help them swing the bat or push their wheelchairs around the bases. These are often siblings or family friends but may also be volunteers from local high schools and organizations, said Garretson. Some players in the older league also have buddies, although the majority of them do not, he said. Various disabilities may be accommodated by use of a tee or a pitching machine or by underhand pitching. Each league now has 10 teams.

Terri Kaelin, who maintains the Challenged Moms group Web site, said the league gives its members a needed sense of belonging. "There are a lot of kids who want to play ball, but because of their special need they’re not able to play on a regular team," said Kaelin. She noted that players also get a chance to socialize with other children with disabilities as well as with their "enabled" peers who volunteer as buddies. She added that the games give parents and siblings of special-needs children a chance to meet each other.

LAST MONTH, over Mother's Day weekend, 12 Springfield Challenger teams went to Virginia Beach for the annual National Challenger Fun Tournament. Among the teams they played against, said Garretson, were teams from West Virginia, Florida, Canada and Puerto Rico. "We had a blast," he said. A smaller fall Challenger league will start a seven-game season on Oct. 2.

On the first weekend in October, Eddie's Club will start up again and will run through next March. This is the club's 10th year. "It's kind of developed into more of a family environment," said Garretson. On the first Sunday of each month, the club meets at Washington Irving Middle School, where club activities include arts and crafts, basketball, baseball, a teen center, a game room, a computer lab and hobby corners. The day is facilitated by volunteers from across Northern Virginia. Last year, said Garretson, 42 schools were represented in the Eddie's Club volunteer base. Meanwhile, parents are invited to attend a workshop on a subject relating to raising a child with special needs. The topic is different each month.

On the other three weekend of the month, activities are scheduled, such as bowling, fishing, matinees, holiday parties, sports outings or visiting the circus. All of these outings rely on the support of student volunteers. "The volunteer base is something that we never thought would transition to what it is now," said Garretson. "The way they interact with the kids is phenomenal. And no matter how many kids we have out at an event, there are always more volunteers." He said the strength of the volunteer base could be credited, at least in part, to the "great coordinator" in charge of recruitment.

This is volunteer coordinator Anne Norton, who said she sends out information about Eddie’s Club to high schools, middle schools and church groups in the area, especially targeting church youth groups and service organizations such as key clubs. Last year, said Norton, Lee High School's Key Club made Eddie's Club one of its major projects for the year. She said the National Honor Society, cheerleaders and students needing to fill service hours for their classes are also reliable sources of volunteer help. Last year, said Norton, about 275 volunteers participated in Eddie's Club, with 60 of them coming out more than four times. "I think everybody who's involved gets a lot out of it — the volunteers, the parents and the participants," she said.

Kaelin is still actively involved in Challenged Moms, although her own son died several years ago, having played Challenger baseball for six years. She helped to found the group in 1998. Kaelin said she had been unable to find a support group to fit her needs because her son's disabilities did not fit into any one category. She also said she felt mothers in such support groups spent too much time crying over their situation.

AT THE CHALLENGER tournament at Virginia Beach one year, she and several other mothers came up with the idea of starting their own support group. "We all met in the hotel lobby, and we all said it was great fun talking with all these moms who understood what we were going through," Kaelin recalled.

Now close to 70 women are on the group Web site, which is invite-only. Kaelin said the site acts both as a way for mothers to keep in touch and as an information resource. For example, she said, a woman recently posted a request for recommendations for a neurologist and has received several responses. But the site also provides a place to vent, for example, "if you come across somebody who says something extremely insensitive," she said.

Challenged Moms also meets at restaurants about once a month. Kaelin noted that mothers of children of all ages and varieties of disabilities are represented in the group. "And we laugh more than we cry, and we feel blessed for the children that are given to us," she said.

Kaelin's husband still coaches a Challengers baseball team, and the biggest fund raiser for Springfield Challenger and Eddie's Club — the Springfield Challenger Jimmy Kaelin Memorial Golf Tournament — is named for her late son. This year's tournament will be Oct. 1 on the golf course at Fort Belvoir.