Challenger baseball team gives disabled kids a chance to play ball

Challenger Baseball provides disabled children the opportunity to play the game — and many times a place to just play.

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Challenger Baseball coach Mike Spiess helps Kate Aguilar take a swing at the ball at the Pacific Little League fields.

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Safe is the call from catcher Dillon Pritchard (left) as base runner Rachel Kutcher (center) crosses home plate during a Challenger Baseball game at Pacific Little League's fields in May.

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Player Klaira Perez returns from fielding for a turn at bat during the program's final game of the season in May.

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Base runner Tyler Zimmerman smiles as he tries to sneak home around the catcher at the plate, and successfully completes the circle of the bases to the cheers of fellow players, friends and family.

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Challenger Baseball players, coaches, friends and family have one final cheer of 'Team!” after an awards ceremony following the final game of the program in May.

WALLA WALLA - When Dillon Pritchard headed to bat in a recent baseball game, his friends and family cheered him on.

And when he nailed a hit that turned into a three-run homer, the cheers just got louder.

They're coming from everyone, on both sides of the plate and from both sides of the field.

When Dillon rounded the bases to thunderous applause, high fives and back slaps from his teammates, there were tears in his mother's eyes.

This baseball team, made up of boys and girls ages 6-18, isn't typical.

Dillon, a sports-loving 14-year-old boy, has cerebral palsy and is on the autism spectrum, his mother, Renee Pritchard, said.

And all of his teammates are developmentally and physically disabled to some extent, making play more complicated.

Not all of the kids can hit, or run, or field.

Some play one position and never enter the infield, and others only have a very small interest in the game - they'd much rather visit.

None of this bothers Mike Spiess, who has been coaching Challenger Baseball since its inception more than 10 years ago.

"Coaching is just teaching to me," Spiess said. "I have just as much fun with these guys as I do on the sideline of a football game."

Spiess has taught and coached in the area for most of his adult life and now teaches sixth grade at Assumption Middle School. He's also a coach of the DeSales football team.

Spiess' original academic and educational interest was in special education, he said. Challenger gives him the chance to work in that field.

Challenger Baseball is run by Parent To Parent (P2P), a state program that helps parents and disabled children find social, educational and emotional support. P2P has been in Walla Walla since about 1992, said program coordinator and Challenger parent Angie Witt. The six-week baseball season had about 20 children and families who regularly showed up for Friday night games. The 2010 season ended in May.

For parents, Spiess is giving their children a chance they don't necessarily get elsewhere.

"This is a quiet-hero thing," said Renee Pritchard of Spiess' involvement. "He's been doing this for 10 years. There are a lot of other things he could be doing on his Friday nights."

He chooses to be on the sidelines, to support the kids.

"I think this gives Dillon the chance to be like other kids," Pritchard said. "He has a uniform, has a coach, he's able to have fans cheer with him - he gets to be like a regular kid for a while."

Dillon loves all sports, he said. He has about eight Seattle Mariner's jerseys and another four or five for the NBA. He's been playing catch since he was about 4, and playing with Challenger for about four years - a highlight of his spring.

"It's really fun," he said. "I play catcher."

Klaira Perez, who has vision and hearing problems, also needs that opportunity, said her mother, Susan.

"This is really fun for the kids," Susan Perez said. "A lot of these children spend a lot of time at doctor's offices and traveling and in surgeries, and they don't get to do the regular things other kids do. This gives them a safe and comfortable opportunity."

Klaira has had about 20 surgeries in her 10 years, Susan Perez said.

But on the field, she likes to play, and she has been for three years.

"I like to hit the ball," she said. "It's fun."

Although the season is over, Klaira wishes it would keep going.

So do her sister and brother, who like to play in the dirt and run around with other kids, she said.

"I'm happy to play baseball," she said. "I like it when they cheer."

Coach Spiess, as the kids and families call him, has made the difference.

"Mike is amazing," said Cindy Lawson, mother of 6-year-old Molly. "He works so hard with the kids. It's not super-structured and he brings it down to their level. They feel like they're part of a team. He's amazing."

Molly has Down syndrome, and is the youngest player on the team. She just made the cutoff this year, Lawson said.

Since it is a sport, the kids have protective equipment, usually provided by Spiess or P2P.

But not for Dillon. He has his own catcher's mitt, helmet and mask.

"They protect my face from getting broken," he said.

His helmet has a Washington State University logo - his favorite college team.

His other favorite teams are the Mariners and the Chicago Bulls.

In a game with plenty of distractions - smooth grass, butterflies and other people all come to mind - Spiess manages to keep things moving.

"She has so much fun," Lawson said of Molly. "But she also realized she can do somersaults in the outfield, and that's fun, too."

Spiess doesn't mind the distractions, and he's done his best to recruit students and players from local high schools to join the Challenger kids as Buddies.

"I think they get more out of it than the Challenger kids do, sometimes," Speiss said.

Some of his Buddies have been coming back for years, and they're typically assigned a Challenger partner at the beginning of the school year.

Some of the Buddies show up once, and keep coming. Often, their families come, too.

"It opens up everybody's minds on disabilities and kids that are different," Pritchard said.

It has for Roxana Acock, a 2010 DeSales graduate who has volunteered with Challenger since her freshmen year in high school.

"I'd never really been around kids with special needs, and I thought it would be a really cool experience to try to help someone," Acock said. "It's made me realize that everyone's the same - everyone just needs love."

Although she's since changed her mind, Acock's experience with Challenger - and with Spiess - made her consider special education as a career.

"Because of the hands-on chance to work the handicapped kids, it's actually changed me," she said. "It lifts my spirits when I'm around them, they're really happy. It's amazing how happy they can be.

"They put a smile on my face."

As a student-athlete, Acock first got to know Spiess when he was her middle school basketball coach.

And the experiences with Challenger have made her appreciate sports all the more.

"They're so happy with having a ball and a bat in their hand," Acock said. "When we play, we get mad when we strike out or whatever. But they're just happy to swing. It's a lot of fun to be around."

And Challenger lets the kids know that other people care.

"It's neat to see families out that support them," Lawson said. "You hear other kids cheering on your child, who struggles in almost every other way. It's pretty touching."

Challenger Baseball provides an active, social outlet for kids that might not otherwise get it, Witt said.

And parents are grateful for it.

Rhonda Copeland's daughter, Aubree, is now 19 and has aged out of the Challenger program. She still participates in games, but now acts are more of a mentor to the younger kids.

She's a Buddy they can relate to, Copeland said.

"She loves it," Copeland said. "At first, she'd just go out into the outfield and pick dandelions. ... It's an awesome opportunity for kids to go out and do something, when they couldn't compete with a regular team."

For Copeland, the coaches make it work.

"They're awesome," she said. "They work with the kids, no matter what their abilities area. They give pointers like you'd give to any team, and they're patient.

"Mike is absolutely wonderful," she continued. "He's very patient. He makes sure everyone gets a chance at bat that wants one, and he tries to make sure that all the kids get at least two turns at bat."

Dillon, for one, isn't big on batting. He has mobility issues that makes running a little harder.

So he's perfectly happy playing catcher and intercepting Spiess' pitches.

"It makes me feel happy," he said. "Like a real catcher."

Spiess is glad to see the kids enjoying themselves.

"Once parents get past (the idea) that their child has disabilities and can't play, they start to see that they can - anyone can do it," he said. "These kids can come out and play and enjoy themselves."

Spiess also said Witt does all the work.

"All I have to do is show up and play," he said.

And he'd like it if more families came out, provided they're comfortable.

"I've always felt that activity is important," Spiess said. "If (a parent) feels like their child has a mental or physical challenge, bring them down here. They can be a part of this. Some kids don't even like baseball out here. It's a chance for people to come together. Baseball is only an excuse.

"Every family situation is different," he said. "But every parent wants to see their kid having fun. As a parent, I think it's important for us to provide kids with that chance."

The kids are having fun, if the smiles as they head home for the weekend are any indication.

With the baseball season over, there are other sports to enjoy through P2P, like swimming and basketball.

And Dillon is really excited for another team this summer.

"The Sweets open Tuesday," he announced. "We have season passes."

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