LAKE WYLIE -- Lake Wylie Athletic Association's first pitch wasn't on a baseball field, but to a community it believed needed its services. The group wanted area children to have a place to play ball. So the group's newest program should come as no surprise.
"It's something that's needed in this area for kids with disabilities," said Sue Farrell of Clover. "There's nothing else like this in the area."
Following the association's first year of baseball in 2008, Farrell contacted group president Jack Sugameli with an idea spurred by a Little League program where her son played before moving to the area. The Challenger Division, an official division of Little League Baseball, allows children with "physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities" age 5-18, or through the completion of high school, to play ball.
"A lot of times it's hard for parents to think about their children playing," Farrell said. "It's hard for them to imagine it for their kids with a disability because they think about it being competitive, kids running around and they say my kid can't do that."
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Sugameli and Farrell are working together to help children do exactly that, with the help of volunteer "buddies." As a non-competitive division of Little League, the Challenger Division relaxes a few of the rules from residency--anyone from York County can play--to registration, which will continue even during the season.
"Anybody can join in at any time," Farrell said. "We're trying to accommodate as much as possible."
Sugameli hopes to have teams on the field by March 21, also opening day for hundreds of area children competing in Little League divisions through the association. Regardless of the numbers, Sugameli said, children will be able to participate.
"We can start with whatever we get in," he said. "It is very volunteer intensive."
Part of that volunteer effort is the buddy system, which places a volunteer with each child to help as needed, from pushing a wheelchair down the baselines to helping catch or throw a ball.
"That can be anybody from a kid to an adult," Sugameli said.
The main challenge thus far for the Challenger Division is finding children to participate, making connections with parents who might not even consider athletics for their children. Most of the response is coming from parents like Farrell, Sugameli said, who can spread the word within their circles.
"Parents of handicapped kids spend quite a bit of time together, whether it's therapy or going to special doctors or whatever," he said. "We're sort of relying on them to help spread the word."
With previous Challenger Division experience, Farrell is well-equipped to share with parents of challenged children what experiences they can expect.
"They stay at bat until they hit the ball," she said. "It's not three strikes you're out. Everybody hits the ball, everybody scores, everybody has fun."
There is no cost for participating families. Depending on the response, Sugameli might offer similar programs through Pop Warner football (flag football) and cheerleading later in the year.
"If the folks want to do it, we'll certainly open it up to them, too," Sugameli said.
Whether hitting a ball off a tee or from live pitching, taking the field with little or quite a bit of help from a buddy, Sugameli is excited about the opportunity for more children to play.
And this pitch, he believes, is one everyone can agree is right down the middle.
"You can't be against it," Sugameli said. "You can't be not for it. It's too good a thing."
Want to know more?
Sign-ups are requested by March 10 for opening day activities March 21, though registration for the Challenger Division will continue past that date. There is no cost to participate. Volunteers for the program are needed, also. For more information, visit lwsports.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.