MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, November 16th. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A special kind of sports.
Year-round athletic programs for people living with disabilities are hard to come by. And with the increasing rate of people diagnosed with disabilities like autism, sports programs for these individuals are more popular than ever.
WORLD reporting producer Lillian Hamman went to the Special Needs Sports baseball World Series just outside Asheville, North Carolina and brings us the story.
SOUND: [BASEBALL CROWD CHEERING]
LILLIAN HAMMAN, REPORTER: It’s a crisp fall afternoon at Bob Lewis Ballpark. Bunches of lawn chairs and lunch coolers stake out space around the baseball diamonds, and waves of cheers carry runners around the dusty bases. Outfielders keep their eyes on home plate, as batters line up ready to take their turn in the batter’s box.
AUDIO: [BASEBALL CROWD CHEERING]
Every weekend for the past few months, people of all ages and disabilities have shown up to play baseball with Special Needs Sports. Now at the end of the season, the World Series game is underway.
MUSIC: [“Come and See” by The LeFevre Quartet]
Some of the youngest players are smaller than the metal bats.
CORA: Batting takes like a long time to get it. So you like have to like practice to do itL. And our mom was bringing Bojangles.
Other players are scoring runs in their eighth decade.
LILLIAN: What's your name?
LILLIAN: How old are you?
KAREN: I don't know. Ask Tara
TARA: She's 72
The players aren’t the only ones on the field. They’re joined by family members and volunteers helping encourage them to chase after balls, wheel their chairs around the bases, and give high-fives. Many special needs athletic events, like the Special Olympics, have more rules or structure. But in Special Needs Sports, the most important rule is to have fun. Tara Simpson says that’s the best part for her son who has autism.
SIMPSON: Socially, he does so much better. Like when he's on an actual team that has more structure, he can't handle it. Something like this, he can just do whatever he wants to do. And they don't tell him how to hit it.
But players get the biggest smiles of the day when the mustached man walking around the field in a black ball cap and white sneakers gives them a hug.
JONES: They just want to have fun.
69-year old Donnie Jones started Special Needs Sports back in 2011. Jones is a former little league and school baseball coach, and an 11th generation native of Hendersonville, North Carolina. When he’s not on the field with his players, he’s under a tent handing out free snacks and drinks.
KID: Are these gummies?
JONES: Gummies? I think that's kind of what those are, aren't they? We'll say they are anyway.
Jones first got the idea for Special Needs Sports at one of his little league games. He saw a boy in a wheelchair throwing a baseball around, and realized there weren’t many athletic programs available for people with disabilities. Especially year-round programs without any restrictions on age or type of disability. So, he set out to start his own. But it wasn’t so easy in the beginning.
JONES: I think I had 10 registered, signed up to play. And I just prayed about it one night, and before that week was over we had forty. And I've never worried about anything how I was gonna do anything since then, I just plan it and said Lord make it happen and He has.
That original 40 signing up for Special Needs Sports has grown into over 130 from seven different counties. The program is free for players. That’s mostly thanks to community sponsors. But one year, Jones bought three Corvettes and raffled them off to bring in more money for the program.
Some of the volunteers pitching and catching during Jones’ games are from local school baseball and softball teams. But for others like Chris Rice, volunteering to pitch for Special Needs Sports is personal.
Rice helped Jones start the organization 12 years ago. But before that, he was just a 10-year old boy on one of Jones’ little league baseball teams. After Rice’s mom was in a car accident, Jones would pick Rice up and take him to school every day. Now with a family of his own, Rice uses any time he can get to come out and pitch for Jones.
Special Needs Sports started off with just baseball. Now, it’s grown into basketball, volleyball, and martial arts too. Jones starts every game with the national anthem and a word of prayer.
SOUND: [ANTHEM AND PRAYER]
JONES: God's blessed it from the beginning and it wouldn't happen without His blessings and work. We're gonna do the prayer and national anthem before every game, I don't ever tell anybody they have to but they're not gonna tell me I can't. Just the way it is.
Tears flow from his clear blue eyes as he watches the players smiling and waving plastic World Series rings high in the air.
JONES: I mean, I just get to be a part of it. It's His organization. It ain’t mine. I couldn't do it by myself. I keep saying I need to quit, but I never will. ‘Long as I'm able I'm gonna do it.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lillian Hamman in Candler, North Carolina.
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