These kids are up for the Challenger

Program gives young people with disabilities a chance to shine on the diamond

Kenn Oliver
Published on July 24, 2014

Nine-year-old Brandon Bowen, admittedly, is more of a wrestling fan than he is a fan of baseball.
As a Children’s Wish Foundation wish kid earlier this year, he got to attend Wrestlemania 30 in New Orleans where got to meet John Cena, his favourite wrestler.
As for his favourite baseball team, like a lot of boys his age, that depends on the day, according to mom Paula. On Wednesday, it was the Boston Red Sox.

“Because David Ortiz plays for them,” he said matter-of-factly, as he turned his attention back to action in front of him.

Still, as Bowen made his way around the bases at Paradise’s Peter Barry Duff Memorial Park in his wheelchair — with the pushing assistance of his father Garry — the beaming smile beneath a slightly-too-big Toronto Blue Jays cap and a sharp pair of Oakley sunglasses made it clear that he isn’t the discriminating type when it comes to having fun.

The plucky kid with cerebral palsy, one who has already undergone 14 surgeries, finds himself wheeling around the bases in Paradise this summer as part of the new Challenger Baseball program.

“At first he was like ‘I don’t want to go’,” admitrted Paula, “but when we got here, to see his smile as I was pushing him and his arms out in the air... he was having a blast. He couldn’t wait to come back.”

First launched in British Columbia, Challenger provides an opportunity for kids from 4 to 18 with cognitive and physical disabilities to put on a jersey, swing a bat, run the bases and be part of a baseball team in a fun environment tailored to their needs and challenges.

The local Challenger Baseball program is officially part of the Paradise Minor Baseball Association, but is cost-shared by the St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Conception Bay South associations. Provincial co-ordinator John Saunder says every effort is made to ensure participants and their parents feel as much a part of the association as their able-bodies counterparts.

“All of us together are using the replica jerseys in the house league and this is just an extension of that,” explained Saunder. “It’s no different than your novice division. This is your Challenger division.

“Even though they’re all disabled, they’re still athletes. Some of them can throw a ball just as good as an able-bodied kid can.”

The biggest difference is the number of people on the field at any given time. While most parents with kids in wheelchairs and those of the youngest participants choose to accompany their child on the diamond and play a part, Challenger Baseball offers assistance from able-bodied volunteers known as ‘Buddies’.

The buddies for the local Challenger program are bantam-aged players from the Paradise association, including 14-year-old Levi Moulton, who also works alongside Mary Holloway with Special Olympic athletes at the Pearlgate Track and Field Club.

“Seeing the kids so happy after they finish their laps or hitting a home run, it’s just great,” explained Moulton, who’ll use the volunteer hours as part of his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award application.

The program runs once a week throughout the summer and will culminate with a jamboree event in early September. In the long run, Saunder is hoping to help establish a program in Corner Brook and perhaps search for funding — $140,000 worth — for a specialized 125-foot field designed specifically for Challenger Baseball.

“It’s not a dirt or grass field. It’s one of those rubberized tennis court-type surfaces, but it’s coloured the same as a baseball field. The bases are inlaid in the ground, so you can roll right over them with wheelchair athletes.”

They say happiness heals, and while most of the program’s participants will continue to face challenges throughout their lives, the joy afforded them through Challenger only serves to raise their spirit and remind them they’re no different than anyone else.

Twitter: @telykenn