For some, the crack of a bat, pop of bubble gum and good-natured heckling are integral parts of childhood summers spent around a baseball diamond.
Thanks to a local community club, those experiences have become a reality for area special needs children as well.
The Wheaton Junior Woman’s Club, now in its sixth decade, hosted its annual Rising Stars Buddy Baseball program this past summer for children with a range of disabilities.
Children are paired with “buddies,” usually older children and young adults, who help them run the bases and field the ball, among other things. The players are divided into teams and have practices and scrimmages.
“It’s something he looks forward to every year,” Aimee Frank said, of her 9-year-old son, Kenny, who has Down syndrome and has participated in the program for four years. “He starts talking about it around January, asking about when Buddy Baseball is going to happen and who is going to be his buddy.”
Frank, a psychologist who works with children with special needs and lives in Winfield, said that the program offers families a sense of community and an opportunity to network, while helping their children feel like everyone else.
“It’s very much like baseball for other kids,” she said. “It’s very typical and it’s stuff that other kids are doing. When you have a kid with special needs, that’s not something that happens often.”
Janice Youngwith said that her daughter, Jenny, has participated in Buddy Baseball since the third grade, more than 10 years ago. Jenny plays alongside her service dog, Bode, who carries her oxygen tank as she runs the bases.
Such is her daughter’s love for the program, Youngwith said, that Jenny even made it out to one of the games a few years ago after receiving open-heart surgery.
“It’s really wonderful just to see the kids out there. They’re so happy just to be involved and do what all their siblings get to do,” Youngwith said.
Youngwith, from Carol Stream, said that each of Jenny’s three siblings have served as buddies in the program. Two now work with special needs children because of their experiences with their sister and with Buddy Baseball.
Wheaton Junior Woman’s Club Co-President Terri Baebler said the program, which started in 1991 with seven players and 10 buddies, gave 65 kids the chance to play baseball this summer.
While Buddy Baseball is the biggest and most visible community project the club organizes, said Baebler, the group of 15 active women also raises money for 16 charities, serves meals at the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans and has distributed two $1,000 scholarships to area high school students.
Judy Casaccio, the longest-standing member of the club, said that she enjoys the Junior Woman’s Club because of its flexibility.
“You can jump in as much as you want one year, and the next year take a step back and maybe participate with less commitment,” she said. “You can support our fundraisers or volunteer at something else we do and come to a couple meetings.”
While the club offers a number of service opportunities, for families such as the Youngwiths, Buddy Baseball will always be special because of the normalcy it provides.
“She loves the familiarity with so many of the kids and friendships,” Youngwith said. “But big hits to the outfield for her is really important. That’s what it’s all about. There’s no score, no winning or losing, and it doesn’t matter what happened in the game if she got a monster hit. That’s what counts for her.”