Illinois Legion team buddies up for kids with disabilities

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There’s much more to American Legion Baseball than batting averages and fielding skills. That’s a lesson Matt Johnson learned in Little League when his coach was Marty Conatser, who would go on to serve as American Legion national commander in 2007 and 2008. “We’re here to develop kids, not just to win baseball games,” says Johnson, coach of Champaign, Ill., Post 24’s prep team for players 14 and under. It’s a lesson that sticks with him today.

As the Post 24 team stood at 9-3-1 for the season, players and coaches gathered June 18 at AMBUCS Park in nearby Urbana and served as “buddies” for young people facing physical or mental disabilities and challenges during a crisp, sunny Saturday morning baseball game.

Aptly named, the Challenger League is about “providing an opportunity for these kids who don’t normally have that kind of opportunity,” explains Bill Hand, a former American Legion Baseball player who is now a coach and board member for the Tom Jones Challenger League of Champaign-Urbana. “The Tom Jones Challenger League is a baseball league for kids with disabilities. We have all ranges. We make it work for every kid. We have buddies to help the kids out … from kids in wheelchairs to one kid who is legally blind. We have kids with autism and Down’s syndrome, but we seem to be able to make it work for everybody.”

Hand’s daughter Tiffany, who has Down’s syndrome, is one of the players. Her favorite part of the game, she says, is “my friends … and batting. I hit the ball all the time.” A multi-year veteran of the Challenger League, Tiffany belted coach-thrown pitches across the infield with every at-bat of the Saturday morning outing.

Johnson, in his first year coaching American Legion Baseball, also has a son who plays in the Challenger League. The coach’s motivation for switching over from managing travel baseball this year was driven largely by the opportunity to develop players through service and responsible citizenship, a core value of American Legion Baseball. His team this season has volunteered at a food bank, helped get a public swimming pool ready for the season and served as Challenger League buddies.

“We’re building a team,” Johnson says. “It was important for us to create that social atmosphere and get (players, who come from multiple different schools in the area) to learn who they were and how to interact, to create a team. And there was the important part of service. This is one of our three service opportunities.”

“This is really what American Legion Baseball is all about,” Conatser said before throwing out the first pitch in the Challenger League game. “Any baseball program, the coach usually has two goals: improving the young man and having him have a good time. Those things are taught and learned as you go through (American Legion Baseball). Interactions with others – other programs, interactions with other people – is how you develop young men. That’s the key to any coach’s satisfaction, that you made them a better player (and) you made them a better person.”

Challenger League interaction – which draws community service support from many groups, including University of Illinois coaches and players – gives athletes a valuable perspective. “In life in general, we need to be thinking about more than just ourselves,” says Amanda Kirby, whose son Matthew is a member of the Post 24 American Legion team. “And the fact that we can start that at a young age – with something that they are passionate about, like baseball – we can instill a sense of value and heart in something outside of themselves. I think this is invaluable. And the kids love doing it.”

Indeed, there were smiles all around the diamond for the Challenger League games that Saturday morning. The league, now in its 25th year in the Champaign-Urbana area, has grown to 10 teams and more than 112 players. “We started in 1998, so we’re one of the longest-running Challenger Leagues, and one of the larger ones, in the U.S.,” says Army veteran Tom Grey, commissioner of the league, adding that the Champaign-Urbana league has been used as a model for others in Illinois, as well as one in Cary, N.C. A division of Little League Baseball, the Challenger program attracts some 30,000 participants worldwide in more than 950 communities.

“The best smiles in baseball are right here,” says Grey, who has been involved with the league for 23 years and now joyfully serves as the public-address announcer at the games, calling the players’ names as they knock pitches into play or triumphantly cross home plate. “The biggest difference between regular baseball and our league is our kids have so much fun. Parents are cheering and doing all kinds of great stuff – volunteering – and enjoying their kids.”

That was what Tom Jones wanted. Jones, who used a wheelchair from the time he was hit with a stray bullet as a small child, went on to become a local television broadcaster after his education at the University of Illinois, which is internationally renowned for multiple breakthroughs in access for disabled students.

Challenger League namesake Jones himself recruited Grey, a member of the local Kiwanis Club, who was looking for a meaningful community service activity. “As soon as I became a Kiwanian, Tom Jones wheeled up to me and he goes, ‘I need you for the Challenger League.’ I had no idea what it was – no clue – but when Tom Jones asks you to do something, you do it. He was just a great influence, a great person.”

Jones and some of the other Challenger League founders have now passed on, but their vision continues to grow and inspire new generations. That’s vital, says Cris Vowels, a retired educator who now serves on the Greater Champaign County AMBUCS association – a national nonprofit that provides adaptive “AmTrykes,” builds ramps and helps with other projects to improve accessibility.

“Basically, our mission is to help support independence for people with disabilities,” Vowels explains between games where she is serving as a volunteer on the field. That support includes community interaction and understanding.

“As an educator, I was a strong advocate for inclusive education, so individuals with disabilities would be in the same classrooms with their peers, who are non-disabled,” she says. “That’s because their peers are the ones who are going to grow up and become parents of someone with a disability, the dentist for an individual with a disability, the doctor, the bus driver… Everyone needs to have those skills to be aware, respectful and cognizant … that everyone connects in the way they need to connect, and are treated with respect. That’s what I see the first time someone comes to a ballgame like this … they see the athletes as athletes first, because they are playing ball and having fun.”

Watching his granddaughter Tiffany play, Air Force veteran and American Legion Post 733 member Tom Hand says the kind of connection he sees in the Challenger League seems rare today. “Citizenship is important everywhere,” he says. “But I think the things we are lacking today is responsibility and respect. You don’t see that very often.”

American Legion Baseball is an exception, he says. “That goes along with the game that we teach them. It’s working as a team. You know, you don’t see much of that anymore in the world today. We’ve lost some of our foundations.”

Coach Johnson is trying to build some of that back through American Legion Baseball and the Challenge League. “I respect the organizations. This was a match made in heaven … not only having a baseball team but also developing the next generation.”

Conatser added that by connecting with programs like the Challenger League, the community sees The American Legion through a positive lens. “These parents are looking for opportunities for their children,” he says. “Having us be involved with that is the perfect situation, showing how much we care – how much the Legion cares – about children and youth.”

The player Conatser coached in Little League is helping show that side of the Legion. “I’m really proud of Matt,” he says. “He’s doing exactly what I think coaches ought to do – teaching them the basics – improving the baseball – but he is improving them as young men. And that makes a world of difference.”