Mari-Jane Williams is a news design editor at The Washington Post and a regular guest contributor to On Parenting. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two children, one of whom has special needs.
The national Little League Challenger program is for people ages 4 to 21 with disabilities or special needs. Eddie Garretson started the Springfield division in 1993 with nine kids; it has since grown to one of the largest Challenger divisions in the world, with about 200 players. Six of the original players are still with the division, now playing in an adult offshoot of the Challenger league.
“What’s nice about it is that the kids are just accepted,” said Lynne Rose of Lorton, whose 20-year-old son Nick has autism and plays in the league. “They’re not trying to change them. People treat them with such respect and there’s no talking down to them or making fun of them.”
The league is noncompetitive and no one is keeping score. Victories are measured in a different way. Garretson and one of his assistants, Johnny Burns, recall a girl standing up from her wheelchair to walk around the bases and score a run with her father’s help. Or when a cancer patient came from the hospital, still wearing his identification bracelet, to take his turn at bat.
Rose said Nick, who was 7 when he joined the Challenger league, initially resisted the idea of playing baseball, but has grown to enjoy it, particularly because he has made friends through his team. It has become an important social outlet for her, as well, she says.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere else that I can relax,” Rose said. “I don’t have to feel awkward or worry. Most of my friends who have kids his age, they’re off to college, and it’s hard to relate. . . . Some of the parents joke that we like it more than the kids do. Those parents have become my friends.”
Garretson was coaching his typically developing daughter’s soccer team in Dale City in the early 1990s when one of the other coaches mentioned that he had to leave for a Challenger baseball game in Prince William County. Garretson went with him, and the Springfield division was born shortly after.
“As soon as I walked on the field, I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “Baseball was the love of my life, and it’s grown ever since.”