By Madoline Markham
Photos by Blair Ramsey/Southern Intrigue Photography
Chad Littleton has always been a sports fanatic. He’s always the first to want to go to a game and the loudest cheerleader in the stands. But for years Chad, who has special needs, was always in the stands watching his siblings play, not on the field himself. And then came the Miracle League this spring.
At his first time up to bat at the baseball league’s new field at Wald Park, Chad was determined to hit a home run, and he’d told everyone he could about it. And lo and behold, that’s just what he did, sending the ball flying into the air as a crowd booming with support cheered him on.
It’s a moment his stepdad Jeff—who also wears a hat as Vestavia Hills’ city manager—will never forget, in part because of Chad’s journey and in part because of the community’s. To him, that home run was symbolic that Vestavia Hills had hit a home run for the special needs community with the new field and new league.
“These players are experiencing something of great value,” Jeff says. “The community is giving them a giant hug in the form of a facility.”
He saw that hug firsthand each Sunday this spring during the inaugural Miracle League season. “In the special needs community some kids are totally extroverted and won’t stop talking and love to be in this environment,” Jeff continues. “And some are very reserved and passive, but when they get on the field, they all share something in common. One young man would move from a snail’s pace to sprinting around the bases. It was so gratifying to see parents’ smiles.”
Each week in the season four teams of mixed ages and skill abilities play ball. Each player in the league is assigned a buddy from the community to assist them, cheer them on and sit with in the dugout—whatever is needed. Each player hits. Each player runs the bases. And no matter how the game plays out, everyone who is there celebrates each player’s successes. Often they are stepping outside their comfort zone only to step into the joy of the game, and their parents’ fears drop as the player’s does too.
Vestavia Hills previously had a baseball league for players with special needs called All Stars, but a big part of what is new with the Miracle League is a field for the special needs community to call their own. Its existence is largely thanks to fundraising efforts by the Vestavia Hills Parks and Recreation Foundation and Vestavia Hills High School and funding through the city’s overall community spaces project.
“While (the special needs community was) warmly embraced by the community, they would have to take seconds to another organization’s priorities for outdoor field space,” Jeff explains. “With the creation of the Miracle League field, that special needs community finally has a home, and they don’t have to share it with another purpose. This spring really showed how much the special needs community and community as a whole was hungry for this place.”
And the field was built specifically for them too. Its custom-designed, rubberized turf field with uniform leveling—not even the bases are raised—allows anyone to move easily from base to base without impediments or tripping hazards regardless of your mobility, and the surface has give and take in case someone falls on it. The dugouts have wider entrances so you can fit a wheelchair in them, and they are equipped with power outlets if a particular wheelchair needs one. Even the bat and ball are created to be more inclusive for all abilities.
Jeff and Chad certainly weren’t the only ones creating memories never to be forgotten on the field in the inaugural season either. Allison Maners—who organizes volunteers for the league and whose son plays in it—recalls watching a child who is nonverbal screaming with excitement as the ball flew through the air, and another who wasn’t able to run the bases but high fived anyone she saw on the field. Also imprinted on her mind from the season were a 6-year-old buddy grabbing a 36-year-old player’s hand to guide him around the bases, and a volunteer pitcher tearing up time and time again as he watched poignant moment after poignant moment with the players in action.
She also notes the importance of the field’s central location in Wald Park. “It’s just as important for the community to see them and that they are valued,” she says. “It makes everyone aware that (these players) are important.”
Each week of the season Coach Allan Jones watched his players—including his son Hudson—look forward to seeing one another. “To see them interact with one another is still incredible,” he says. But the most notable part of the season to him was the strength of community support.
Grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins and teachers came out to support the teams on Opening Day, and so did neighbors and folks who lived nearby. “What was so incredible was week two came, and it didn’t drop off,” he recalls. “Week three came, and it didn’t drop off. It stayed the same. It was the most moving thing about the whole season because it brought the level of excitement to an all-time high and people wanted to be a part of it.”
More and more volunteers continued to rise up too, including high school students who originally came to get community service hours and later chose to do it just because they wanted to. “The buddies are there to help the players physically or emotionally, but it’s a two-way street,” Allan says. “(The players) are also there to teach us and help us grow. I think that’s so important.”
As the Miracle League’s fall season starts in September, Allison encourages everyone in the community to come out to cheer on their teams. “Come watch some games to put your life in perspective,” she says. “I’m blown away by how fun this is. To see how many people it’s impacting is really cool.”
Miracle League Fall Season 2021 Games
Tuesday Nights Sept. 14 – Oct. 26
Thursday Nights Sept. 16- Oct. 28
Anyone in the community is invited to come out to watch the games and to volunteer as buddies. For more information on volunteering, email Allison Maners at firstname.lastname@example.org. To register for the league, visit vhal.org/miracle-league-registration.