Grand Slam! Dreams Come True at Miracle LeagueFebruary 28, 2017
This is no ordinary field of dreams — a specially designed ballpark where those with special needs have no limitations. They can be part of a team and most importantly have fun playing a game many never thought they could.
According to Dan Haren, Sr., executive director of the Miracle League of Arizona, a lot of special needs kids have repeatedly been told “no” when it comes to playing sports. But at Miracle League, the answer is, ‘Yes, you can!’
“Our motto is, ‘Every child deserves the chance to play baseball,’” says Haren. “Here, kids can feel safe, loved and nurtured. And their parents can take a needed break from caregiving and just sit in the stands, watch the game and cheer their kids on.”
Haren says athletes quickly discover this is a special place where they can have a blast.
“A lot of these kids have to go to the hospital for treatments, but they insist to the medical staff that they have to get out on time so they can get to their baseball game,” Haren says.
With the help of more than 200 community volunteers, 160 players on 10 teams play ball. With one-hour games every Tuesday and Wednesday night and all day Saturday during three seasons, Miracle League athletes enjoy the same thrills as major leaguers, except the umpire never makes bad calls. “In fact, he’s there strictly for encouragement,” says Cassandra Switalski, director of program operations for Miracle League of Arizona. “And it’s impossible not to get a home run off of our pitcher,” Switalski adds.
The program is success-oriented. There’s no competition, just fun. Everyone gets an at-bat and everyone scores a run. They even get their own baseball cards printed up, thanks to Unicom Grafix, Inc. in Tucson.
The athletes are paired with a “buddy” for the season. Buddies stay with their players offering support and assistance, a safety net and lots of high fives as they’re pushing wheelchair-bound ball players around the bases.
“What happens out on that field is indeed a miracle,” Haren says. He relates a story about Dylan Sunderland, one of the athletes who trained all year to be able to run the bases without his wheelchair.
“In the last game of the season, Dylan used his walker, but as he rounded third base, he flung it aside and stood under his own power. He fell three times, but was so determined that he kept getting up and arrived at home base to a standing ovation from the crowd.”
Dylan’s story is not unusual. Miracle League athletes routinely blossom, growing in maturity and self-confidence as a result of their involvement with the organization.
“I don’t have a disability when I’m there, because there’s nothing I can’t do when I’m out there on that field,” says player Priscilla Lucero.
“The Miracle League of Arizona is not just an organization, it’s a family helping other families do things together,” says Priscilla’s mom, Michelle Lucero, whose two daughters play baseball and whose son volunteers as a buddy. “They have created a sense of community amongst all the families involved.”
The league is growing in popularity as more families discover it.
“Our son, Drew, has spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy,” says Jen Meland. “When we accidentally stumbled upon the stadium one day while driving near our home, I decided to look it up online to see exactly what a Miracle League is.
“I tried not to get too excited, because surely there was a catch,” Meland continues. “After all, Drew could only move his fingers – though he drives his power wheelchair like a professional racer. But I called the Miracle League and spoke to Program Assistant Reggie Oates.”
Meland explained to Oates all of Drew’s physical disabilities and the fact that he couldn’t swing a bat or catch a ball, despite being a huge sports fan. And his brother, Ryan, would have to be at his side always.
Oates’s response: “Sounds great! Let’s get him signed up as an athlete and Ryan as his buddy. They can join a team right away and we can’t wait to see you on the field.”
Meland was stunned. But now, after two years on the Miracle League of Arizona’s Dodgers team, Drew and his best friend, brother and buddy, Ryan, play every Saturday, as the rest of the Meland family cheer in the stands.
All of the athletes take their sport seriously; and most practice, like Drew, outside on their driveways to get ready for each game.
At season’s end, the athletes gather with their families for a special awards ceremony to celebrate their achievements. “Each player is recognized individually and receives a trophy or a medal for participating,” Switalski says. “Seeing the pride and joy around the room is magical to watch.”
So how did all this happen?
Seven years ago there wasn’t a Miracle League of Arizona, just a vision shared by a group of businessmen, including Haren and his son Danny, Jr., who was playing for the D’Backs at the time. Among the organizers was the Diamondbacks’ President and CEO Derrick Hall, the late baseball great Harmon Killebrew and Frank Udvare, who was then Miracle League of Arizona board president and today serves on the board.
The men approached the City of Scottsdale with their proposal to build a field for disabled kids on the site of a former elementary school, land that was estimated at the time to be worth $800,000. According to Haren, the City and school district officials fully embraced the concept and agreed to lease the site to the Miracle League for 20 years.
Then the real fundraising work began, and with generous grants from the Thunderbirds Charities, Scottsdale Charros and the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority, the Miracle League had a start on the $2.3 million it was going to take to begin construction on what is currently one of the finest baseball facilities designed exclusively for children with special needs throughout the world.
Derrick Hall arranged for the D’Backs to donate $380,000, and more funding was garnered from local corporations, businesses and charitable foundations. Grant-writing is a key component to raising funds for an organization like Miracle League.
The newest additions to the stadium are two batting cages — the first and only such facilities at any Miracle League in the U.S. — built with a $60,000 grant from the Thunderbirds, where the kids can practice and hone their skills. A $260,000 playground was added, thanks to the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority. It’s designed and equipped for disabled kids, but siblings of the players also use it during games to keep themselves occupied.
“The key to raising funds,” says the current president of the Miracle League of Arizona board of directors, Sherry Roueche, “is networking, networking, networking – getting out there in the community and letting everyone know what this organization is doing.
“We put on two big fundraising events each year – a golf outing and a casino night – but it’s not just about the big dollars,” Roueche says. “Our volunteers and our Teen Ambassadors are out there doing car washes and putting on carnivals for our families. We offer advertising banners on the field and seek contributions from across the community, from individuals to businesses. Even the athletes themselves raise money through coin drives.”
The kids drop change in gallon jugs — one for each team — and each month whichever team has the most money gets a pizza party. MidFirst Bank sponsors the coin drives and matches the donations from the athletes. “Every nickel of revenue counts,” says Roueche.
Participation is free for the athletes and they’re supplied with a jersey and a baseball cap when they sign up to play. Volunteers staff the concession stand and act as team moms, coaches and buddies. Special training for those various assignments is handled by the staff.
It takes $250,000 a year to keep the stadium running, according to Roueche. “But when I see the joy from athletes and their parents and knowing this is making a difference in their lives – and seeing the miracles – I feel so privileged to be a part of it.”