Challenger Baseball is a source of fun and community connection in Caledon. Jackie Thornton/Contributed

Local volunteers are stepping up to the plate to make baseball accessible to all.

The 2023 Caledon Challenger Baseball season is soon coming to a close, with a celebratory barbeque planned for August 19. 

Challenger Baseball is a division of the Caledon Minor Baseball Association (CMBA) for individuals with cognitive or physical disabilities. It’s just like any other baseball league only no score is kept: Challenger Baseball’s philosophy is “play, just for fun!”

On Saturday mornings, Challenger Baseball participants meet at the accessible baseball diamond at Bolton Camp to play ball.

Challenger Baseball is run entirely by volunteers, from the behind-the-scenes administrative work to the coaches and “buddies” who ensure the baseball games are fun for everyone. Each Challenger Baseball participant is assigned a buddy who provides help with the game as needed — such as by assisting in the swinging of the baseball bat. 

The first Challenger Baseball season in Caledon took place in 2017, and in 2018 the CMBA applied for a grant from the Jays Care Foundation — the Toronto Blue Jays’ charitable organization. The application was a success and the subsequent $150,000 grant CMBA received enabled the construction of the accessible baseball diamond.

This year, there are three teams in the Caledon Challenger Baseball league, each with around 14 kids on the roster. When factoring in buddies and coaches, each team can have as many as 25 people involved in each game.

Jackie Thornton, Director of Challenger Baseball in Caledon, said in addition to all the Caledon participants, some players come in from places like Brampton, Vaughan and Barrie.

Thornton has been involved in Challenger Baseball since it came to Caledon. She’s an educator by trade and her husband and child are involved in Caledon Minor Baseball. She doesn’t have a child with special needs, but stepped into her role regardless when the need for volunteers arose.

Thornton works with children with special needs at multiple schools, and as such is able to find participants and volunteers for Challenger Baseball through her work. High school student volunteers are critical to the success of Challenger Baseball, said Thornton, as they make great buddies on the baseball diamond.

“Some of the kids, they’ve really become friends with their high school students… they really look forward to seeing them and palling around every Saturday,” said Thornton. “It’s so great when these players have buddies to bring them out because the parents get to sit back and watch their kids play.”

Mike Brunetto of Caledon Area Families For Inclusion (CAFFI) is a coach for his son’s Challenger Baseball team. He also helps out Thornton in running the division, and said he’s dedicated to making the baseball diamond a safe and comfortable space for families to gather.

“It’s really nice to see people come together, you see the parents hanging out while their kids are playing,” said Brunetto. “They’re talking to each other when the baseball is finished — people are getting together outside of baseball too.”

Thornton said Challenger Baseball serves as a networking group for families and helps them learn about supports available to them in the community.

Chrisoula Lynch’s son is a Challenger Baseball participant currently in his second season. In the first season, Lynch saw how much work went on behind the scenes to make the games happen each week and decided to become a volunteer herself.

Lynch said everyone has their own struggles and coming out to baseball each week makes her feel like she’s not alone. 

“It becomes like a little village,” said Lynch.

Brunetto said each year, he walks in an autism charity walk. This past June, he invited his friends from Challenger Baseball and was overwhelmed by the support he received — over 100 people came out. It’s a great example of the community the baseball league has built.

“It was incredible,” said Brunetto. “This sense of belonging, this family we’re a part of.”

Lynch said playing baseball is great for children’s mental and physical health, adding that it gives them, and parents, a sense of belonging. 

Sometimes, the world wants to put individuals with disabilities in a box, said Lynch.

“Just because they do things a little differently doesn’t mean they’re incapable of doing it,” said Lynch. “With disability comes ability… it’s really amazing.”

Brunetto said the parents of all the high school volunteers for Challenger Baseball should be really proud of what their children are doing. Thornton agreed and said it’s those high school volunteers that make players feel included and successful on the baseball diamond.

“They’re the people on the ground running bases with kids, helping them swing the bat, putting smiles on their faces,” said Thornton, who noted many high school volunteers keep coming back long after their mandatory volunteer hours for graduation have finished.

Lynch said she loves seeing her son’s face light up when he sees his buddy at the baseball diamond — and seeing the buddy’s face light up too.

“It’s a beautiful thing, it really is,” said Lynch.

Challenger Baseball is unique, said Thornton, because it combines the special needs community with the Caledon community at large by its very nature. She said Caledon needs to become a more inclusive place.

“People need to… see what the needs are and help others even if they’re not part of that group themselves,” said Thornton.

Thornton said all that’s required to become a buddy for a Challenger Baseball participant is reliability, willingness to learn and a desire to have fun.

Brunetto said there’s a lot of good that comes from doing good things for other people.

“At the end of the day, you can hold your head up high,” said Brunetto. “There’s many good things you can do in the community.”

For the first time this year, in the baseball off season, Thornton said Challenger Baseball is looking to rent a gym once a month so participants can play sports together. This will keep the tight-knit community together until baseball season comes along once again.

Brunetto is also currently looking to work with the Town of Caledon on programs for individuals with disabilities. He said the Town doesn’t need to hire consultants to figure out what the needs of the community are.

“We are your free consultants,” said Brunetto. “We’ll always be there to help support and design programs.”

Those looking to register a participant for Challenger Baseball can email jthorntonbaseball@gmail.com. Those interested in becoming a volunteer can send an email to the same address.

By Zachary Roman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 17, 2023 at 18:52

This item reprinted with permission from   Caledon Citizen   Caledon, Ontario

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