Everybody Needs a Buddy

A Methodist church in Memphis provides a better baseball game for people with special needs

by Mary Boland

On a windy summer’s day at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, two baseball teams take the field. Storm clouds grumble in the distance, but no one’s worried. They’ll move indoors if lightning flashes or if rain begins to pelt the players. Otherwise, they’ll continue on just like any other game. First up to bat is the red team, while the blue team takes the field. With “Challenger” blazing across his jersey, the first batter—maybe seven or eight years old—moves toward the plate, the long bat unsteady in his little hands.

But he doesn’t have to do this alone. Right at his side is another boy about the same age, sporting a T-shirt that reads, “Everybody Needs a Buddy.” He shows the batter where to stand, offers encouragement for the coming pitch, and moves toward first base. The pitcher, also sporting a “Buddy” T-shirt, lobs the ball to the batter. A swing and a miss. The coach moves in now, hovering over the little batter, showing him how to hold the bat, and whispering the age-old advice, “Eye on the ball, now.” Another pitch, and another swing; this one is more steady, and with a crack the ball shoots past the pitcher toward shortstop. The young buddy moves back toward the batter, who is a little shaken and exhilarated from the hit, to take his hand, and run beside him toward first base. They make it, just in time, and the crowd goes wild.

This isn’t your normal baseball game; it’s better. Christ United Methodist Church’s special needs program has run Challenger Baseball, a division of Little League Baseball, for the past two years. With the encouragement of a friend in Mobile, Alabama, who is involved with Challenger Baseball, Jan Averwater leads the Memphis program. The congregation’s charter with the Challenger Little League is the only one in Memphis. The mission is simple: to provide a sport that millions of children play internationally for children who are challenged mentally or physically. What makes this sport special is that each challenged athlete has a buddy who can assist with any task with which the challenged player may need help. The result is a burgeoning relationship between the buddy and the athlete. Not all the players in the Challenger league are children who need a full-time buddy. Some of the players are older and able to play the game with less assistance. Because of the wide age span, Averwater has sorted the players into two teams: red is for those 13 years old and younger, and blue is for those 14 years and older. Every Saturday morning, they come together to play against each other, but you’d never know it was a competition. Everyone cheers for each other regardless of jersey color.

This game is more than a pastime; Averwater believes such a group provides the community a chance to understand how many people are affected by mental or physical challenges, hopefully increasing a sense of awareness. While the Challenger league is run by Christ United Methodist Church, only a few participating families are from the congregation. The program has garnered interest from across the faith spectrum. On a larger scale, Challenger also partners with organizations in the wider Memphis community, such as Memphis Parks and Neighborhoods and Memphis Amateur Sports Hall of Fame, as well connecting with United Cerebral Palsy of Memphis, Down Syndrome Association Memphis, and the Madonna Learning Center, which provides a faith-based educational and social environment to children with special needs. Averwater is determined to grow the program, which has already touched many lives: “Any churches or organization who would like to put a team together in this league—we would love that, we’d love to expand and grow.”

Participants in Challenger Baseball vary in abilities, from some who need little assistance, to those who benefit from a full-time buddy, such as Kyle Anderson who has a buddy assisting him in his wheelchair all the way to home plate. Tracey Anderson, Kyle’s mother, expressed her son’s great love of baseball and what it means for him to play. In a family of baseball fans, Kyle had been surrounded by the sport his whole life, and the chance to actually play on the field is an incredible experience every week. “Kyle has been going to baseball games since he was four or five, and he loves it,” his mother said. “When he got to actually play and be out there and have his uniform, you could just see it on his face, absolutely ecstatic. With our family being so semi-fanatical about baseball, this was just the most amazing opportunity for him.” With an older brother also involved in baseball, whom Kyle has watched play many times, the opportunity for Kyle to be the player and his brother the spectator, is incredibly meaningful.

This deep camaraderie between siblings is not a singular feeling for Kyle and his brother. Wesley Baucum, a 19-year-old on the Challenger blue team, always enjoys when his sister is able to be at a game. At one game, his mother, Carol Baucum, recounted that this was “the first game this year that the whole family could go, and he noticed it right away. He hit a great ball and made a home run out of it. We clapped, and he looked right at his sister and gave the biggest grin like, ‘they’re here to see me, and I’m doing good.’ It was really touching.”

The opportunity to play a sport together fosters a sense of community between the families of players, too. Baucum is quick to point out, “There’s a lot of camaraderie among special needs [families], especially parents with younger kids, because they’re very apprehensive about what their child can do. It helps the younger parents a lot to talk to those who are older and have been through many things and involved [their children] in sports, school, or exercise, or whatever. They all have a range of different abilities.” Luckily, parents are put at ease at a Challenger game, as any lack of ability is met with an able buddy, encouragement from a supportive crowd, and advice from patient coaches.

Beyond the field at Christ United Methodist, the Challenger league in Memphis is spreading its wings. For the final game of this season, the Challenger teams, red and blue, will have the opportunity to play as one team for Memphis. “This year, we’re going to go play a Challenger Baseball team from Lexington, Tennessee,” Anderson explained. “And I think, ‘oh, my goodness, we get to do a road trip for Kyle. How many times have we done that for his brother?’” The teams even received specially made baseball caps for the occasion, with an M sewn on the front for Memphis. “I think the kids are all excited about it,” Baucum said. “They feel like they’re representing their city.”

Challenger Baseball is just one of many special needs activities at Christ United Methodist, and with a dedicated, caring staff, the program is bound to grow. “No matter what challenges we’re born with,” Averwater says, “God created us all to have special gifts. These children are no different than any other children. Their special gifts show up on every field of play. To be involved with them is probably one of the greatest gifts for those of us who are. It just humbles you and [you] realize just how special each person is, regardless of the challenges set before them.”

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