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Athletes of All Abilities Can Now 'Play Ball!' in West Hartford

The Miracle League's 'Field of Dreams' will be dedicated this Sunday

Sunday is a day dedicated to dads but, at the opening of the Miracle League of Connecticut’s Field of Dreams on Sunday morning, fathers, along with mothers, children, grandparents and family friends, will gather to salute a project that has been two years in the making.

They will all come together to celebrate the debut of the Miracle League’s $700,000 handicapped-accessible baseball field and playground.

Located at the athletic facility at the corner of Trout Brook Drive and Asylum Avenue, the baseball field is the first of its kind in New England, designed specifically for children with special needs.

Ronit Shoham, a co-founder of West Hartford’s Little League and a co-director of the Miracle League of Connecticut, reflected on how the idea for building a handicapped accessible ball field came about for her and her Little League co-founders, Scott Franklin and Mike Michaud.

“When we founded Little League, it was with the mission of enabling every child to play baseball. Two years after establishing Little League, we realized that there is still a group of kids that we have not been able to service, and that was kids with special needs. So, eight years ago we began the Challenger Division and I have been coaching one of those teams alongside Scott Franklin. Mike Michaud heard a story about the Miracle League and when the parcel of land at UConn became available, we thought it would be a great place to put a Challenger League field.”

That parcel of land, leased from the University by the town, allows the new Miracle League field to be located beside three traditional fields. The Challenger League consists of three teams in West Hartford, which are part of a larger regional baseball league specifically for children with disabilities. The new field will be used by all of these greater Hartford teams.

According to the Miracle League’s mission statement, the field is designed specifically “to provide boys and girls ages 5-18 with developmental and/or physical challenges the opportunity to participate in baseball in a safe, nurturing and enjoyable environment.”

In order to ensure their mission to provide a fully-accessible playing field, a flat, cushioned, rubberized surface has been installed and bases and lines have been painted so there are no edges, allowing those in wheelchairs and walkers to hit, run and catch more easily. While there are currently approximately 200 Miracle League Chapters across the country and 160 rubberized baseball fields, none of those fields was in New England – until this Sunday.

In addition, a buddy system will pair those with and without special needs for each game and throughout the season. Buddies will be fellow school mates, teenagers, parents, college students or adults who will volunteer their time to assist Miracle League athletes with their game skills. The end result will be a fostering of friendships and a deeper understanding of the children in the Miracle League.

Standing adjacent to the field is the other part of the Miracle League project: a barrier-free playground designed for children of all abilities and unique needs. It will provide an alternate activity for family and friends of children who are playing on the Miracle League Field and the surrounding fields.

Shoham is so grateful to the state, town and individuals who have helped them raise the funds for the project. The State Bond Commission approved $250,000 for the project and West Hartford contributed $50,000. There have been many private donations, as well. The support, she says, is for a very good cause. “It’s a community coming together, enjoying what most American kids and adults love – baseball.”

Sunday’s celebration begins at 11 a.m. and will include speeches from state and local officials as well as Miracle League co-directors, Shoham, Franklin and Michaud. The festivities will also include free popcorn, candy and a performance of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” by members of Unified Theater.

Afterwards, the three West Hartford Miracle League teams will play games with teams from other towns. Marcus Apter, a student with special needs, will throw out the first ball. Apter has raised $15,000 dollars for the cause by selling bracelets that read, “Let’s play ball – for all.”

Sunday’s event also holds a special meaning for Mayor Slifka, who will be there to support his brother, Jonathan, who will be catching the first pitch. Born with spina bifida, Jonathan was the first child with special needs to take part in the town’s youth baseball league – from his wheelchair.

The Mayor recalls a fond memory of his brother preparing to pitch a game. He “caught” for his brother as he warmed up, and the Slifka brothers had their first athletic experience together as peers, something many siblings simply take for granted. “And now,” Slifka recalls, “when I think of the Miracle Field, I think of that memory and that the kids that will be playing on that field from now on are going to have the feeling of not needing any assistance. They’ll always have a place where they can play with their peers. That was not something available to my brother back then. I can’t imagine how great it’s going to make those kids feel – who are going to get a chance.”

The Miracle League will continue to seek donations to build restrooms and a concession stand. Those interested in making a donation may go to the Miracle League website, www.miracleleaguect.org for information.

Lisa Bonarrigo June 15, 2012 at 01:02 PM
Thanks for your untiring commitment to this project. It will endure for many years to come. Your untiring support of those with special needs truly sets you apart. Congratulations on a job well done.

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