By Jack Firneno
It’s not as much a field of dreams as it is one of opportunities.
That’s the word used most by people from the Miracle League of Northampton Township, Northwest Human Services (NHS), Council Rock ACHIEVE and others when they describe the day of baseball that took place last Wednesday.
These groups brought around 300 intellectually and physically disabled adults to the Northampton Township Municipal Park. Groups arrived all day for one-hour shifts, where they got to attend clinics and play ball on the only special-needs fields in the Delaware Valley.
Many of the players already enjoy watching baseball, noted Steve Bryer, a member of the Miracle League of Northampton Township. The group, which creates opportunities for special-needs children to play sports, reached out to other organizations to bring in adults as well.
Actually coming out to the field, he said, “is a great opportunity for them to learn about being an active part of the sport.”
Located on Hatboro Road near Bristol Road, the baseball and separate multi-purpose fields are made of flat, smooth, rubberized cushioned surfaces that are wheelchair accessible and less hazardous than grass or AstroTurf.
And, at around 11 a.m., the first busload of intellectually and physically disabled adults and their aides showed up to play on them.
The multi-purpose field was relatively serene, with a few people practicing batting, pitching or catching on each corner. But the baseball diamond was a different, much more raucous scene.
Here, volunteers and aides cheered and hollered as each player came to the plate. Many of them needed help holding the bats, while others — only about half the participants were ambulatory — were pushed around the bases in wheelchairs.
For some, it seemed like just the sensations of feeling the bat connect with the ball or being congratulated for crossing home plate was entirely new to them. Others went in to deep concentration or displayed a touch of bravado, determined to get a hit.
And every hit — along with every throw, catch, stolen base and run — was met with enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. No one struck out, no one kept score, and eventually the game paused for everyone to sing a few enthusiastic rounds of Take Me Out to the Ball Game and God Bless America.
“It’s something we know people enjoy,” said Terry McNelis, the person responsible for people with intellectual disabilities at NHS. “Today is an exposure. It’s an opportunity to form teams and play regular games going forward.”
It’s also exposure for others in the area. “There’s a whole interaction with the community here. You look around, there are people running, walking dogs. There are trails and gardens,” said Bryer. “Integration is critical, because people become comfortable with all kinds of disabilities.”
And, that integration extends to other intellectually disabled people in the area. Among those helping the adults play were members of Council Rock’s ACHIEVE group. Now in its second year, the organization makes arrangements for adults 18 through 21 with special needs to work or volunteer in their community as they transition into adulthood.
In this instance, members were able to help coach the players alongside volunteers from Athletes Helping Athletes, which focuses primarily on providing support for special-needs athletes.
Volunteering and working gives ACHIEVE students a sense of pride and worth, explained ACHIEVE transition teacher John Engelhardt. “Our students are so used to being provided support, but today is an opportunity for them to train in a leadership role,” he said. “It’s something they can take so much ownership of.”
An arrangement like this, said Bryer, “completes the circle” in terms of what the Miracle League set out to do when it envisioned the field.
“It was a lot of hard work, but there was always that carrot hanging,” he said.
“On a day like today, you see the dream come true”