WESTERLY — Those involved in unified sports will tell you how fulfilling it is to see the thrill on the faces of athletes with intellectual or physical challenges participating on the field of play.
Art Burton, vice president of the Westerly National Little League, expected to watch his son play in a Westerly YMCA youth basketball team this winter. But after seeing a need for coaches, he reluctantly committed to directing one of the teams. He's glad he did.
Burton was inspired by the experience of coaching Patrick Smith, a youngster with OCD, Tourette's and autism who played on his basketball team, to find a baseball option that included athletes with intellectual and physical challenges.
Thus, the Westerly National Little League Challenger Division, which held its opening day on July 20 at Trombino Field, was born.
"I wasn't going to coach basketball, but there was a shortage of coaches," Burton said. "It was such a wonderful experience to see Patrick give everything he had, and he did well. I thought, wouldn't it be great if Patrick could play baseball? I looked into it and found there was a Little League program already established."
The Little League Challenger Division was founded in 1989. A few Rhode Island divisions, such as East Greenwich, have offered Challenger teams recently. Challenger divisions give any players with physical or intellectual challenges, ages 4 to 18 or up to 22 if still enrolled in school, a chance to play baseball with reasonable accommodations.
"Basketball definitely created the Challenger league in Westerly," Burton said. "We want to offer as close as a baseball experience as possible. My son will be a 'buddy' on the team."
"Buddies," who are volunteers without challenges, assist athletes with disabilities in a variety of ways during practices and games, like helping them throw the ball, swing the bat or escorting them around the base paths. No player is called out. The last player in the batting order trots around the bases with "a grand slam homer." Depending on a player's capabilities, batters face coach-pitching or hit off a tee.
"It's a great experience and everyone has a smile on their face," Burton said. "Typically, I don't want the best players on my teams. I want the players who try the best. These kids give it their all."
In its first year or organization, Westerly's Challenger Division will play two games and conduct two practices. The team features a player with Down syndrome and a couple with OCD and autism, such as Smith. Wheelchair-bound players are also welcome to play, but Westerly does not have any such players on its roster this season.
Patrick's mother, Amy, says the league will benefit not only athletes with special needs, but their parents.
"This league is a fantastic opportunity, whether it's access to exercise and friendship, or tapping into hidden talents," Amy Smith said. "This is a win for kids with special needs. In the case of Patrick, it's also therapeutic. When he is in a game situation, many of his symptoms disappear as he concentrates on playing."
Smith shared the story of Tim Howard, the former U.S. World Cup soccer goalkeeper, who also suffers from Tourette's and OCD. Howard has been quoted as saying that when he's playing, his symptoms are kept at bay.
"This is also a win for parents," Amy Smith added. "Parenting a special-needs child can be isolating. This league gives us another way to meet families who face similar challenges. It gives us the opportunity to form strong community bonds, so necessary for our kids' and our own mental health."
"We're starting small as we get underway," Burton said. "Next year we hope to have 10 games and 10 practices.