I'd never heard of the challenger program until my sister told me about it 30 minutes before game time. I called to see if Jason had a game that day and she informed he had a challenger game. "What's that?", I said.
In short, the challenger program is a way for special needs kids to play a game against each other, with the help of their "buddies", a local little league team. The challenger teams rotate from week to week amongst the various little league teams (buddies) throughout the season. The job of the "buddy" is protect the challenger (as needed) from hard hit balls and to guide them along the base paths and as well as give general guidance depending on the ability of the challenger.
As soon as she explained what it was, I knew I was going. As a kid in Junior High I had experienced a similar program and it was a uniquely rewarding experience. The special needs kids attended our school since it was equipped with all of the necessary ramps, elevators, and faculty. The physical education program for these kids was called "Positive P.E." and utilized the help of able bodied students as part of the curriculum. I was one of them. As I think back on those times, I hope I was a help to those kids and I know for sure they taught me a lot of life's lessons. I knew it would be the same experience for the "buddies" in this baseball program.
As soon as I walked up to the field I got emotional. All of the kids were interacting and goofing around, which was the point of the whole thing. The game was secondary to kids acting like kids. None of the tension of winning and losing existed for this game. It was beautiful to watch and I had to keep wiping my eyes clear so I could take photos.
Watching the parents with their special needs kids is very inspirational as well. I witnessed a lot of patience, guidance and support during the game. But most of all I witnessed love. Lots of it. I don't have kids, but I imagine the demands of raising a child with special needs are intense in ways that raising able bodied kids isn't.
I didn't get any of the names, which is why I use the word "kid" for everybody. In the end, I'm not sure it matters, though. What was important was watching kids be good to each other despite their differences. It was good for my soul and I hope it was good for theirs as well.
Two buddies race alongside a challenger. The kid in the Giants jersey seemed to be the most outgoing of the bunch.
A fist bump for a nice hit. The Giants and the A's played each other with help from the Tigers, in blue.
Baseball wasn't the priority for this infielder, he had more important things to take care of.
A handshake for a job well done.
Nearly every kid that crossed home plate did so with a slide.
I'm not sure what he was doing, it looks like he's giving the "strike" signal. Again, more important things to do.
This kid looked thrilled rounding the pads in his wheelchair.
Drawing a line in the sand, literally.
A lot of kids played around in the dirt, but this mound was the winner for biggest EVER!