Challenger League a Home Run in Small Town

There's no more iconic American summer pastime than the game of baseball. Unfortunately, children with disabilities are usually stuck in the dugout while everyone else has fun.

The Challenger Little League in the small town of Peru, Indiana set out to change that a few years ago. Like most small towns, Peru has its own Little League program, but they recently added a special Challenger division reserved for anyone ages 4 through 22 with mental, emotional or physical challenge.

"Most of these children don't have the opportunity to play sports in their local communities with their peers," says Tory, the program's organizer. "Now they finally have the chance to benefit socially, emotionally and physically from the game."

The program operates with the help of the "buddy system", which pairs each team member with a buddy, a volunteer from the local community who offers to help talk, guide and play with their team member throughout the game. Not only does the volunteer enjoy time on the field, he or she also develops a close relationship and a deeper perspective of the challenges their buddy faces.

Peru has a population of just 12,000 so the league invites children from surrounding communities - some as far as an hour away - to commute in their accessible vehicles and play in the weekly games. What started with 18 players three years ago exploded into a 53-member program in 2011.

Kyle Recker of Superior Van and Mobility in Fort Wayne found out about the program from a customer who'd brought his BraunAbility wheelchair van in for regular service. "He started talking about how his two children played in this accessible league," said Kyle. "It was such a terrific concept that we decided to help out any way we could."

Superior offered financial support to the program, as well as water bottles for players. Some employees, including Kyle, volunteered as "buddies" throughout the season. "It was a wonderful experience," he said. "We were allowing kids to participate in something that was previously out of the question."

Realizing that many families struggling with a disability may have financial restrictions too, the Challenger Division does not make any family pay to participate or for treats, uniforms or team pictures. "With the help of Superior Van and Mobility and many other local sponsors, our families were able to participate without contributing anything but their child's participation," said Tory.

Congrats to the organizers, volunteers, and players of the Challenger League on another terrific season. We hope this inspires other parents or volunteers looking for a way to bring baseball to kids who've never hit the field before!