The Challenger Baseball program is returning to local diamonds after a two-year hiatus.
The COVID-caused break halted play for a program that offers “an opportunity for children with cognitive or physical disabilities to enjoy the thrill of playing baseball, being part of a team, developing physical and social skills,” according to clovedalebaseball.com.
Now, with the program set to restart at the beginning of May, a hurdle has arisen: a lack of volunteers.
“Our registrations are through the roof,” said Jeff Sandes, the division coordinator for Challenger Baseball. “So everyone’s coming back and then some.”
Sandes said the lack of volunteers, or buddies as they are known, could prevent some kids from playing this year. Each player partners with a buddy and the buddy helps each player wherever there is need. Buddies might help kids throw or catch or hit or just offer encouragement. But even with the help, it’s more about friendship and inclusiveness.
“Our able-bodied helpers act as a companion for each of the players,” explained Sandes. “Sometimes they need help if they’re in a wheelchair, or they have some disability that prevents them from swinging a bat, or getting around the bases, or whatever.”
He said before COVID, Challenger used to get a lot of teeanagers from the local high schools to help out. But now, after a two-year break, many of those volunteers have moved away or are on to other things and the program has lost its connection to volunteers and the high schools.
“We’re up to about 50 people that have registered, but we have less than 10 buddies,” noted Sandes. “So we have a long way to go.”
Sandes said the special needs community has been hit really hard over the last two years from all the restrictions.
“Initially they lost surgeries and therapy sessions and they were just isolated, basically just isolated from society,” he explained. “And their social network was completely taken away.”
He said that social network is slowly coming back and Challenger is helping with that. So the need for volunteers is crucial to get these kids back out on the diamond.
“The Challenger kids see their able-bodied buddies as peers. They don’t see themselves with a disability, they see themselves as having a friend on the field. So that companionship means more to them than anyone could imagine.”
Sandes said the impact Challenger Baseball has on everyone involved is so profound that it’s almost unmeasurable.
“You have to get your hands dirty to see how much of a difference this program makes in these kids’ lives. It’s life changing.”
He said it benefits the parents, the kids, and the volunteers. The volunteers’ hearts are transformed by the program. The kids get to do physical activity, gain a friend, and grow from all the interaction that follows in their buddy relationship. And he said parents hearts are moved by seeing their kids “just being kids.”
The Challenger program is backed by the Rogers Media charity Jays Care Foundation. The foundation is a big supporter of Challenger Baseball.
“Challenger Baseball is Jays Care’s adaptive baseball program, run in partnership with Little League Canada and Baseball Canada, specifically designed to empower children, youth and adults living with physical and/or cognitive disabilities,” according to the foundation. “The program teaches athletes living with disabilities the core life skills inherent to baseball, including: teamwork, communication, determination, resiliency, inclusion, support and courage.”
Sandes said more than a dozen buddies have gone on to win scholarships from the Jays Care Foundation after volunteering with Challenger. “Those scholarships are about $10,000.”
Sandes added Challenger Baseball augments Cloverdale as a community in which to both live and play.
“It’s not just valuable for the kids that need that friend or need that activity, it’s valuable to the parents and volunteers too. Everyone who gets their hands involved with this, realises how amazing this program is and what it means to people,” he said.
“I’m appealing to the community to help get volunteers. We need a whole bunch of people to volunteer as buddies for this program to work.”
Sandes said anyone who wants to volunteer can contact him at 778-708-0196, or firstname.lastname@example.org.