Miracle League ensures every child who wants to play baseball can

By Cara L. Dempski

EAU CLAIRE — Summertime baseball leagues are a rite of passage for many young American athletes.

The sport known as America’s pastime offers a chance to hone skills and learn lessons in teamwork that are useful in the future, but for some young baseball lovers, there are significant challenges to keep the game from being easy – and safe – for them to play.

That’s where organizations like the Miracle League of the Chippewa Valley come in.

The league has helped 72 players diagnosed with intellectual, physical or developmental disabilities take the field in the 2017 inaugural season. The league commissioner Amy Standiford said the group’s mission is “every child deserves to play baseball.”

[emember_protected] “The Miracle League of the Chippewa Valley is more than just a baseball league,” Standiford said. “For our players, it’s about gaining confidence, building self-esteem, learning, following directions, making new friends, having fun, and feeling a sense of pride as a member of the team, just like other kids. It’s about being included, being a part of the community.”

The league players and officials rely on more than 170 volunteers from around the Chippewa Valley to make sure games were both fun and safe. Kaitlyn Larson, age eight of Elk Mound, earned some playing time on the field this summer, along with “buddy” DeAnna Leon, age 16, also of Elk Mound. Leon, a member of Elk Mound’s high school softball team, provided Larson with assistance on the field this season.

Other “buddies” from Elk Mound assisting players are Mykayla and Jonathan Sygulla, Bria Halama, Qwynn Tyman, Alyssa Lauer, and Alexis and Marian Lee.

The league

The first Miracle League field opened in Conyers, Georgia, in April 1998. The organization has blossomed since into a league of 275 field in 44 states, plus Puerto Rico and Canada. The league serves over 200,000 children and young adults.

The Miracle League is an organized youth baseball league for children ages four to 19 with any disability. Games remove barriers keeping children diagnosed with disabilities off the baseball field, and lets them enjoy the game.

The main goals of the Miracle League of the Chippewa Valley are to provide opportunities for children with disabilities to play baseball; develop and promote community engagement by building awareness and relationships; promote health and quality of life for individuals with disabilities and their families; and educate the community about the capacity of individuals with disabilities.

Children from a roughly 60-mile radius report to Eau Claire weekly to play a two-inning game. According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, there are approximately 4,000 children identified with intellectual, physical, or emotional disabilities in the Chippewa Valley.

Standiford said families feel privileged to drive an hour one way to play baseball and be a part of a team each week.

The Chippewa Valley league is the seventh in Wisconsin, and the third affiliated with Goodwill. Other Wisconsin fields can be found in Green Bay, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Onalaska, Oconomowoc, Appleton and Manitowoc.

Standiford indicated a group of parents and volunteers partnered with Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin and the City of Eau Claire to create the Chippewa Valley league. The first informational meeting was held in the fall of 2015, and the group started field site preparation just one year later in 2016 after receiving substantial community support.

Goodwill provided a $100,000 gift to lead off donation for the full $525,000 cost of field construction.

Opening ceremonies and dedication of the special rubberized field at Jeffers Park were held Saturday, June 3, 2017, and the season started the following Monday, June 12.

The field is rubberized to allow children to play with unrestricted movement and without fear of injury. Players bat, field, and round bases according to their abilities. Games are two innings long, and everyone plays, bats, and wins.

“Like other youth leagues, we have volunteer coaches, uniforms, umpires, an announce, the national anthem at every game, and trophies at the end of the season,” Standiford explained. “For everyone’s enjoyment, we also sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ between the first and second inning.”

Able-bodied volunteers age 14 and over provide assistance and encouragement with athletes as part of a “buddy” system. The partnership leads to greater safety and assistant, as well as creating friendships and a shared love of the game.

Games are currently held Mondays at 7 p.m., and Wednesdays at 5:30 and 7 p.m. Each of the six teams plays one game per week during the eight-week season.

The Chippewa Valley league is the seventh in Wisconsin, and the third affiliated with Goodwill. Other Wisconsin fields can be found in Green Bay, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Onalaska, Oconomowoc, Appleton and Manitowoc.

The people

Tracy Tyman of Elk Mound says her daughter, Qwynn, got involved with the Miracle League after some of her friends talked about volunteering for the league. Tyman said her daughter has a long held desire to work with children, and this seemed a good way to get her feet wet.

“Qwynn has always been interested in teaching or working with kids,” Tyman said. “She was a little nervous at first, but then she met Noah (her buddy), and she’s settled in.”

The younger Tyman plans to major in speech pathology, something that participating in the Miracle League has helped her hone in on. Her mother, Tracy, is hoping she can spend more time volunteering with the group in the future.

“I think it’s awesome she’s (Qwynn) involved,” Tyman said. “She’s going to start her future in speech pathology in a few years, so it’s a great fit.”

In addition to Standiford’s professional ties to the organization as league commissioner and co-chair of the steering committee, her son Sawyer is also a Miracle League Player.

“Our Sawyer is 11 years old and has Down syndrome,” Standiford said. “We have been blessed to have Sawyer involved and participate in regular Little League for years, but with the league rules focused on age, it’s getting harder and harder for Sawyer to compete.”

Standiford noted her son loves everything about the game, especially the hot dogs and popcorn, and has formed a special bond with both Qwynn Tyman and her older brother, Cole, through years of participating in baseball with his older brother, Storm.

“We wanted to make sure we tried to give him (Sawyer) that opportunity to continue to have love for the game,” Standiford noted.

Sue Hrdlicka, Kaitlynn Larson’s mother, said her daughter has enjoyed being part of the league’s inaugural season.

“She (Kaitlynn) loves it,” Hrdlicka said. “She loves being out there and being around kids she has something in common with.”

Larson, who is non-verbal, always knows when it is game time. Hrdlicka said she can tell her daughter is getting excited as they get close to the field from the grin that appears on Larson’s face.

The Elk Mound mother said Larson’s buddy, DeAnna Leon, is the daughter of Kaitlynn’s school bus driver, and is someone who has been supportive of Larson throughout this season’s journey.

“DeAnna has been such a great asset,” Hrdlicka finished.

It was actually because of Leon that Alexis Lee and her younger sister, Marian got involved as buddies.

“I got into it after DeAnna had talked about it with her neighbor,” Lee explained. “It is so much fun to be doing this.”

For Lee, the coolest part of volunteering with the Miracle League has been watching the kids try so hard and get so excited at the games. She recalls one young player who uses a walker making a big hit and then running as hard and fast as he could toward first base, grinning as he did.

“It’s so much fun seeing all these kids who usually don’t get to play actually playing the game,” Lee finished. “It’s so cool to see them work so hard.”

Standiford said the Miracle League is more than just a baseball league. It helps players gain confidence,  build self-esteem, and learn, but also gives parents an opportunity to be part of something bigger than their child’s disability.

“This is about finding an accepting group of families that understand and encourage children to do their best,” Standiford said. “It’s about being like every other family looking forward to their child’s game.”

People who are curious about the Miracle League are free to attend the Monday and Wednesday games at Jeffers Park on Eau Claire’s northwest side. Anyone who would like to volunteer as a buddy, coach, umpire, announcer, committee member or sponsor can find information on the league’s website at www.chippewavalleymiracleleague.com.

Interested parties can also register for newsletters by joining the email database, and Standiford noted the league’s Facebook page is a valuable source of news and events.

Those with specific questions can reach Standiford at astandiford@goodwillncw.org or 715-271-8667. [/emember_protected]