When Matthews residents Elizabeth and Brad Edwards enrolled their 14-year-old son Ryan in the YMCA’s Miracle League they had no idea how playing on a team would impact him.
Ryan, who has Down syndrome, was one of about 50 area students to participate in the nonprofit’s first Miracle baseball season, which is open to any area student with special needs. The program links children who have disabilities with a buddy to assist them while playing baseball. This past season, there were four teams with about 10 kids on each team, and next year some organizers hope to see double the attendance.
Registration for the upcoming season begins Friday, Feb. 1, and runs through the end of March.
All children ages 5 to 18 are welcome to join the league, and buddies must be 12 years or older. The cost to register is $35 and goes directly to the program to purchase uniforms, hats and supplies. All children are given a chance to bat until they hit the ball, and no team wins or loses any game.
“I didn’t realize how much Ryan would enjoy it and kind of how important it is for them to be involved in the team,” Elizabeth Edwards said. “And just awareness for other people and that baseball is a pastime and a passion, and for these kids to be a part of that was really cool.”
This is the first time the Charlotte area has seen a program of this nature, but volunteers like Mint Hill resident Sam Goldberg have seen Miracle Leagues throughout the state, including one in the Raleigh area.
“This isn’t just something that people have in every community, so we have people drive up to 100 miles just to come,” said Matt Fitzwater, the director of operations at the University City YMCA which hosts the program.
The inaugural season has been especially exciting for parents who never thought they would see their child play any sport.
“People are excited to play,” he said. “People are just in tears. They have never been able to have their child play an organized sport.”
For Elizabeth Edwards, she was most shocked at how well Ryan did in the league. Even something as simple as wearing the uniform and hat, something Ryan normally wouldn’t be OK with, were things he looked forward to for each game.
“He really was much more self-sufficient than I expected him to be,” she said. “Through the whole season he only needed the tee one time to hit the ball. He needed direction a little, but physically, he was able to do everything.”
Volunteers and families involved see the effect playing in the league has on the children, and Goldberg says for anyone to appreciate the program, they have to come to a game. All of the kids have buddies but are all assisted differently depending on their disability.
Goldberg volunteers as a buddy.
“You have to be at one of the games to appreciate the support and enthusiasm of the parents and those who are there to just watch the game, of the players themselves and the buddies,” he said.
Games are held on a baseball field located at the University City YMCA, 8100 Old Mallard Creek Road, made specifically for the program.
Organizers from the YMCA hope the children and families participating in the Miracle League begin to call the YMCA their home as they transition to other programs and services offered by the organization.
“We have our swimming pools open in the summer, which are all handicap accessible, so we want to try to transition the kids into other YMCA programs so this is kind of their home,” Fitzwater said.
Families like Ryan’s agree and hope to see more programs for children with disabilities at the YMCA and around Charlotte.
“It was beyond my expectations for what he would get out of it, and I am really glad they have that,” Elizabeth Edwards said. “I hope there are some other programs or other people who can add to those sorts of things.”
For those who want to participate, but do not have time to volunteer, donations for the program are always accepted.
“We are always looking for sponsors because we really run this program at a loss,” Fitzwater said.
Want to know more?
For more information about how to volunteer or sign-up to play in the Miracle League, visit www.ymcamiracleleague.org.