By Faran Fagen
David Michel steps to the plate and takes a practice swing. Mom and dad clap and cheer. A teammate rolls his wheelchair to take a slight lead off first base.
Tink. The ball dribbles to the third baseman, and David beats the throw by a few emerging steps. He stands on first base, raises his arms, and smiles.
“My sons are more independent with their ability to play baseball,” Kecia Michel said. “They love the encouragement and being applauded for their efforts. They’re included and accepted.”
Kecia, her husband Daniel, and two sons, David, 11, and Kaniel, 9, have played in the Challenger Baseball League for kids with special needs for the last six years. The boys on the autism spectrum started when they were 5 and 3, respectively. They play on the Coral Springs Mets, coached by longtime volunteer Kevin Tyrie.
The Michels, along with the 200-plus families who take the field each year, are excited for opening day on Feb. 26 at Pine Trails Park in Parkland from 2 p.m. to 5:30. All 12 Challenger teams will be there for pictures, ice cream, and a quick baseball game.
Husband and wife Randy and Debbie Hibshman of Coral Springs helped start the Broward Challenger program in 1990 and still oversee it. The league began with about 20 kids forming two teams in Tamarac. Now, they have teams in Parkland, Margate, Coral Springs, Tamarac, Sunrise, Weston, and Pembroke Pines.
“Just watching the smiles on the faces of our kids as they hit home plate makes the entire program worthwhile,” Randy said.
Challenger is a modified baseball program that allows all special needs kids to play baseball. Coaches and Buddies help all the kids to hit, field, and get around the bases. They typically play two-inning games, with every player getting two at-bats. The games last anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half.
“All these kids can be part of a team and have their parents cheer for them just like their brothers and sisters,” Randy said.
Many players have been part of the nonprofit, volunteer-based, free baseball program for over 20 years. Age groups are divided into juniors (approximately 5-10 years old) and seniors (11 to adults).
In addition to the opening day party, the season boasts a day at a Marlins game, a year-end indoor picnic with a DJ, and all the players getting trophies.
Each team has its own home field and will travel, making it a bit different than other local programs, like Parkland Buddy Sports.
Randy says it truly takes a village of generous donors and volunteers to make the program work.
“Thanks to private sponsors and the cities involved, the Challenger program is provided at no cost to our families,” Randy said. “We provide uniforms, equipment, picture, trophies, and all the activities.”
After Feb. 26, all games are played on Sunday afternoons from 3:30- 5:00 at the seven participating cities.
“The cities and communities involved have always provided the challenger program with their full support as they have seen the difference Challenger makes in the lives of these kids,” Randy said.
As for the Michels of Coral Springs, they’re looking forward to another season of David and Kaniel running the bases and coming home.
“Challenger has provided my sons the ability to increase their social abilities,” Kecia said. “It has also given my husband a chance to be a dad that can connect with their sons through sports and have that sense of pride in that area as well.”
Kecia also likes that she and Daniel meet and bond with other parents at the games.
“The uniforms and traveling to play different teams gives us the opportunity to meet more families and kids.”
Challenger is still looking for volunteers to help during opening day and the season. Interested individuals should email Challengerbroward@gmail.com or visit challengerbaseballofbroward.com.
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- Faran Fagen, who teaches high school journalism, graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Journalism degree and from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in Education. He's worked at The Palm Beach Post, SunSentinel, and MLB.com. He lives in Coral Springs with his wife and two children. Oh, and his three dogs -- who all think that they're his favorite.
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