A league of extraordinary buddies

BERWYN – There’s nothing surprising about a kid wanting to play baseball in the summertime. Samantha “Sam” Mirabelli just wanted to be like her older brother and sister and join in the fun. But for the 7-year-old with Down syndrome, that wasn’t possible until the “Buddy League” came to Berwyn.

Every Sunday in May and June, 16 kids in kindergarten through fifth grade suit up for T-Ball at Proksa Park from 4 to 5 p.m. The first two Sundays the kids focused on the game’s fundamentals. For the rest of the eight-week season, they split into two teams and played the great American game. They eventually will end the season with passing out Trophies and a celebratory pizza party.

It all started with Samantha’s mother, Deb Mirabelli, responding to her little girl’s dream to play ball like the other kids.

“I called [Berwyn Recreation Department Director] Tony Martinucci and asked ‘can we form a Buddy League.’ He said yes, he could help out with trophies, T-shirts and hats, which blew me away,” Mirabelli said.

Her next call was to Park District Executive Director Jeffrey Janda, Mirabelli said. Janda cleared the way for field use. After discussion, it was jointly decided to waive fees.

Each special needs child is paired up with a volunteer, which include mostly other children of a similar age. Out of 16 players, about seven are autistic, Mirabelli said, while the rest have Down syndrome. They come from all over, as far as Wheaton and Hyde Park, and, of course, Berwyn.

The volunteers participate on a come-as-you-can basis, Mirabelli said, but they show up and are ready to help.

“We pair them up and they help with practice,” Mirabelli said. “They run the bases with the team members because they can’t always remember where to go, but that’s only if they need it. They help them catch, whatever.”

Anabel O’Donnell is one of those volunteers, and she’s something of a pro. She’s a real ball player: She pitches, covers third, catches and plays shortstop, the 8-year-old from Emerson School said. As for her volunteer gig, she does it for all the right reasons.

“I get to help people play baseball,” she said.

She’s reliable, too, because she said she goes to every practice with her mom. She’s made friends, as well.

“Some people are from my school,” she said.

For the volunteers, a lot of the time is spent keeping the team members focused, something the parents of a special needs child are used to.

“Being the parent of a special needs child, it’s neat to see all the parents sitting, just being able to watch their child play,” Mirabelli said. “You don’t understand unless you have a kid with special needs. You’re always running. It gives the volunteer kids a real eye opener. The parents have been so grateful.”

On the day of the first game, Mirabelli said she woke up at 7:30 a.m. to find Sam standing by the bed, dressed in her uniform with her cleats clacking on the floor, hurrying her mother to get ready for the game, hours away.

“The kids have just been so excited,” Mirabelli said. “The volunteers are so amazing. They are so patient. I’m so proud of them. My biggest fear was after the first week, no one would come back. Now they always ask: next week?”

Mirabelli said she is grateful for the support that has come from the Recreation Department, Park District, volunteers and community.

“I’ve been blown away with the generosity of these people,” she said.

Most importantly, the children with special needs don’t have to worry about being left out of something that all kids should have a chance to enjoy.

“Sam’s been this mini-mascot for her older brother and sister for years. Now it’s her turn,” Mirabelli said. “Most of them have siblings that play, we just wanted to give them a way to play like the rest.”