Teaming up in Brooklandville for a turn at the plate

Children with special needs get a baseball opportunity, thanks to League of Dreams' partnership with high school students

May 28, 2011|By Eric Meany, The Baltimore Sun

In the fall of 2006, the Students for Disabilities Awareness club at St. Paul's School for Girls was searching for a way to use sports to bring its members together with students who are physically or mentally disabled. LuAnn Blackman, the club's faculty sponsor, reached out to League of Dreams founder Frank Kolarek to explore the possibility of a partnership.

"To this day she laughs," Kolarek said, "because I don't think I answered her first email."

Blackman eventually did contact Kolarek, and, with the help of League of Dreams, St. Paul's has just completed its fifth annual spring baseball program with special-needs students from Ridge Ruxton School.

Kolarek, a Baltimore native and former minor league baseball player who spent 15 years working for the Special Olympics, created League of Dreams to provide for the physically or mentally challenged the kinds of sports opportunities that most people take for granted.

This year's event last month at St. Paul's Brooklandville campus reminded him just how much a simple game can mean to kids who are accustomed to being excluded.

"For them to be on that field," Kolarek said, "to be cheered for, to have their name announced, to be a part of a team and be at that beautiful facility over there — it means a lot."

He first saw what sports could do to enrich the lives of the physically or mentally disabled when he was a catcher in the Oakland Athletics' minor league system. Tagging along with some teammates who were doing volunteer work allowed him to see how powerful it could be for special-needs children to have someone to play with.

"I wouldn't say that they appreciated it more," Kolarek said. "But I would say that in some cases they had a different appreciation than children without disabilities because they didn't have as many opportunities."

Kolarek's desire to provide more of those opportunities inspired him to create League of Dreams. Eight years ago, the organization had a modest beginning with an adapted baseball league in Catonsville.

"Basically, our first year we had about 12 kids that showed up," Kolarek remembers. "Our marketing tool was word of mouth. But if you get parents of children with special needs really fired up, they will find the programs and they will get their kids the opportunity that they are looking for."

As word has spread over the years, League of Dreams has grown to involve more than 300 volunteers and 500 children and adults with special needs. In addition to the school-based program, they oversee a youth league in Baltimore County and a league for military families in Aberdeen.

League of Dreams has also partnered with Special Olympics and Baltimore City to run an adult softball league. This summer, eight teams from group homes will be playing at the new Cal Ripken Senior Youth Development Field at the Weinberg YMCA on 33rd Street in Waverly, formerly the site of Memorial Stadium.

As League of Dreams has grown, the partnership between Ridge Ruxton and St. Paul's has become one of its centerpiece programs. It began in the spring of 2007, when students from St. Paul's began making weekly visits to Ridge Ruxton to help teach the basics of baseball to the students there. The program culminated that year, as it has every year since, with a game of adapted baseball, complete with player introductions, the national anthem and a ceremonial first pitch.

The annual event now includes several area schools. In 2008, the Boys' Latin varsity baseball team became involved through the interest of its then-coach, former Oriole and current League of Dreams board member Mike Bordick. Students from Gilman and St. Paul's School for Boys have also taken part, helping make what started as a small event grow into a larger affair.

At its heart, though, the point of the program is still what the members of the Students for Disability Awareness club envisioned — to get people to see past their differences and realize that they are all the same.

St. Paul's sophomore Jordan Surhoff, daughter of former Oriole B.J. Surhoff, says that having an older brother who is autistic has inspired her to become involved in disability awareness. Even so, she acknowledges having been anxious about her first visit to Ridge Ruxton.

"I was really nervous going into it, because I didn't know what to expect," Surhoff said. "Even though I had experience with my brother, it was still nerve-racking. But once we got in there, it just changed; everything changed because they were just so friendly and welcoming. They were just like us."

Five years into the program she helped start, Blackman has seen her students learn invaluable life lessons from their interactions with the children from Ridge Ruxton.

"We begin by thinking we will be helping them," Blackman said. "But in reality they help us know and understand more and more who they are, who we are and that our similarities in our dreams and goals are so much greater than our differences. ... In so many ways, they have more to teach us than we do them."

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