Miracle League helps special needs children -- and their parents -- to belong

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Sydney Smith approaches the plate, bat in hand, adjusts her cap and taps the bat to the plate twice, marshaling her focus before taking her swing at the pitch. After a couple of misses, the yellow plastic bat makes contact with the ball and the 11-year-old bounds to first to the cheers of the dozens of parents -- from both teams -- who fill the stands at Cranberry's Miracle League ballfield on a bright Saturday morning in Graham Park.

"I like hitting the ball. I like winning," Sydney said from the dugout while "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" played in the background during a break in play.

This is Sydney's first year in Cranberry's competitive division of the Miracle League, a baseball league for kids and adults with special needs. The game is played on a rubberized field, often with the assistance of people called "buddies."

Sydney's previous years were in the miracle division of the league, where the only rule is to have fun and everyone is a winner. At the competitive level, scores are kept and adjusted rules of the game are followed. After three years in the miracle division, stepping up to the competitive league was both worrisome and exciting for Sydney, who has met the challenge, bringing the satisfaction of success to her as well as her parents, Chimene Brant and Michael Smith of Morningside.

"Having the opportunity for Sydney to experience the kinds of feelings, challenges and activities of a typical kid, well, there's no words for it. She just shines every week when we come here," Ms. Brant said of her child, who has a form of autism and Tourette's syndrome.

Until five years ago, when the Cranberry field opened, there was no opportunity in the region for special needs kids to "do something as simple, as enjoyable, as American as playing baseball," noted Mike Sherry, founder and president of the Miracle League of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which operates the Cranberry field. Since Mr. Sherry got the ball rolling in Cranberry, the league has expanded to include fields in Murrysville and Upper St. Clair.

For Mr. Sherry, the seed was planted when he was one of the volunteers associated with a group of radio stations in Alabama that were sponsoring construction of a Miracle League field. A few years later, coincidentally, after he and his wife, Chris, moved to Cranberry, their daughter, Jordan, was diagnosed in January 2007 at the age of 3 with autism. A few months later, still reeling from the diagnosis, Mr. Sherry was coaching his 7-year-old son Tanner's baseball team when a parent of a special needs child asked for an exception to the rules that would allow her son to continue to participate in baseball by letting him hit the ball off a T.

"I remember that day. I remember wondering whether I would be the next parent who needed an exception to the rules so that my child could play baseball. It was then that I decided we need to build a Miracle League field here," he recalled.

The Cranberry field opened in May 2009.

This year, some 275 players and 500 volunteers participated in Cranberry in spring ball, which has just wrapped up. Mr. Sherry estimates that about 400 players and 600 volunteers have been involved in the program since its inception.

At first, he saw the Miracle League as an opportunity for those with special needs to experience some of the joys of typical kids on a baseball diamond. Now, he sees the league as a "pulpit that shines a light on lack of opportunity for special needs people" as well as an opportunity for enlightenment and growth for the volunteers who are involved.

Home run for volunteers

Meghan Dunbar, 19, of New Sewickley couldn't agree more. Miss Dunbar, who will be a junior at Slippery Rock University, said her experience as a volunteer with Miracle League has solidified her choice of a major in therapeutic recreation. The 2011 graduate of Freedom Area School District served as a "buddy" each week this season for 5-year-old Ella Tomaszewski of Butler. Ella has spina bifida, hydrocephalus and mobility challenges that require her to use a walker or crutches, said her mother, Shannon.

Miss Dunbar remains on hand at each game as a backup friend for Ella, who participates in the miracle division at Cranberry.

"When I first started, I viewed [Miracle League] as a way to 'let everyone play,' " Miss Dunbar said. "With Ella, she wouldn't be able to play if the field was grass because of her walker.

"But, with the [rubberized surface] of this field, she can. That's what I was thinking when I first got involved. But, now, I see that Miracle League is just as much about me and the other volunteers. I've learned ... it's not about what they can't do, it's about what they can do with a little bit of adjustment."

Mrs. Tomaszewski said the family is grateful that Ella has an opportunity to play ball like her older brothers, Caleb, 7, and Aiden, 6.

"She loves having her name announced at the games, but probably her favorite part is having her hat and her uniform," Mrs. Tomaszewski said.

Ella added: "I'm really good."

The baseball landscape in the region has changed dramatically since the Cranberry field opened in 2009. Miracle League fields opened in spring 2012 in Upper St. Clair and in the fall in Murrysville, and they are working in tandem with the Cranberry league. Participants and volunteers can access a regional website at www.miracleleaguebaseball.org to register or volunteer. Fields are in development in Indiana, Pa., and a field opened in the fall in Wheeling, W.Va.

Maura Rodgers of Eighty-Four is executive director of the Miracle League of the South Hills, which operates the field in Upper St. Clair. This spring, some 200 kids and adults with special needs and about 250 volunteers were involved.

"It's been transformational and not just for the kids involved. We're changing the fabric of the community. People are learning to see these players as kids with different abilities, not disabilities. It's been an education for the entire community and then a lot of fun for the kids," Ms. Rodgers said. "There's a lot of education in empathy from the baseball diamond."

She said participants and volunteers come to her field from around the Pittsburgh region.

Patti Hicks, secretary of the Rotary Miracle Sports Complex in Murrysville Community Park, said its field -- the newest in the region -- also draws from near and far. After seven years of planning and fundraising, park officials held a grand opening Sept. 15 of the Bill Mazeroski Miracle League Field and, this spring, had 86 players and about 40 buddies as well as another 20 or so general volunteers. Last year's short fall season had 48 players.

Mrs. Hicks and her husband, Harold, have two grown children, neither of whom have special needs, but she said they have had many friends with special needs children.

"The way we look at it, we know that they are no different than any other people ... they need the same opportunities as every one else," Mrs. Hicks said.

Miracle League has evolved into their passion.

"The joy in the faces of the players is there every game," Mrs. Hicks said. "There's one person I'm thinking of, he doesn't talk a lot. He has arthritis so bad he's in so much pain, but when he's on the field, you'd never know it. He's thrilled to be doing what he's doing and it shows in his smile."

Ms. Brant said the benefits extend from the children and volunteers to the families of the players.

"Yes, this is a place for Sydney to practice her social skills. Yes, she loved her buddy in the previous years when she had buddies. Yes, she gets a chance to shine in an athletic endeavor. But, I and my husband get so much out of it, too. For me, when you have a kid with special needs, you often feel isolated. When I come to the Miracle League field, I fit in -- just like Sydney fits in," Ms. Brant said.

"That gives us all hope and we all need that."

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Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.


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