A light breeze flowed through the three diamonds at Cloverdale Ball Park, weaving its way past kids and coaches playing ball. Jeff Sandes, baseball cap on, stood near the fence of the far back diamond. He greeted parents and kids, exchanging high-fives with returning players who had come for the start of their team’s season on April 22.
“When [parents] come out to the ballpark, the big goal is to have them stay in the stands, so that they can just watch their kid have fun in an environment they don’t get to have much,” Sandes explained. “In most families, they don’t just have one child that ended up with down syndrome. They have a few kids and the able-bodied ones have their own sports and activities, and then the child with a disability gets carted around. So they don’t get to build the relationships or play in the same kind of environment a sports team can provide.”
The program, which is now in its third year, partners each Challenger player with an able-bodied buddy who helps them play the game. This allows the players to gain friendships with other kids in a sport setting, and gives the parents an opportunity to watch their children play a sport on their own.
During the opening game on Sunday, April 22, the camaraderie and inclusivity was clear. Kids in wheelchairs were pushed to first base by their buddies after hitting the ball on their own. Easily distracted players were reminded to stay on track by the people running beside them. In the outfield, a group of kids played with a multi-coloured parachute, to allow everyone to stay active and engaged.
One parent, whose two children were playing in the outfield, explained the atmosphere of the game and the day.
“There’s just so much joy here,” she said.
Over the last two years, the Challenger program has grown exponentially. Although it began with only 16 kids registered as part of the team, it has now grown to more than 40 players. Although that’s great news for Sandes and the families — he hopes someday Challenger may become the program the Cloverdale Minor Baseball Association is best known for — it does put a strain on the program’s finances.
Challenger Baseball is organized by the Toronto Blue Jays’ Jays Care Foundation, Little League Canada and Baseball Canada. And although these organizations provide funding for the program, it isn’t always enough for the little things that Sandes believes makes a huge difference to parents.
Last year, he put together pictures of each player, framing them on plaques and giving them to the families.
“You’ll find the families don’t expect anything from anybody. They’re not living in a world of entitlement, because raising a child with special needs is really hard, and people can’t really appreciate it,” he said. “To give them something like this will make them cry.”
To support these kinds of mementos, Sandes and the Challenger program do a fundraiser every year, getting donations from businesses in the community to put together a silent auction.
This year, the fundraiser will take place at the Cloverdale Ball Park (17383 61A Ave) on April 28 and 29. Participants will be able to purchase raffle tickets between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, or between noon and 2 p.m. on Sunday. They will then be able to place their tickets in a draw for the various items on display.
This year, in addition to the donated raffle items, there will also be a grand prize from WestJest: two tickets to anywhere WestJet travels. All participants will be eligible for the grand prize flight.
On Sunday, the Challenger players will draw the prizes for the people who helped fund their sports program.
“People need this for their kids with disabilities,” Sandes said.
“You can watch the game being played on the other side of the fence. And you’ll go ‘This is great,’” he continued. “But then, if you’re actually involved, getting your hands dirty with these kids, you’ll realize it’s like a billion times more than what you thought it was.”