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Archive for Wednesday, June 15, 2005

League unifies kids on the ballfield

Parks and Recreation offers Unified baseball league

June 15, 2005

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For Matthew Johnson, Fridays are days when he gets to play on the same team as his brother Steven.

Matthew is a member of the Unified Sports league of the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department.

Friday nights at the Lawrence High baseball field, children with disabilities such as Matthew have a chance to participate in America's pastime. They take the field as parents, friends and family members cheer them on from the stands.

"The focus and emphasis is based on what the kids can do and not what they can't do," said Matt Enyart, Unified Sports supervisor and coach of the youth division.

The Parks and Recreation Department formed the Youth Unified Sports leagues in 1999.

"I was passionate about integration and wanted to offer some integrated programs, so I first started out with basketball, then offered baseball and finally soccer," said Annette Deghand, Special Populations supervisor.

Unified Sports brings together individuals with and without disabilities in an integrated setting.

Some of the children who participate in the league do not have disabilities. Some are siblings or friends, while others participate for the unique opportunity it provides.

Baseball is the third unified sport Kiera Snodgrass has participated in. Her mother, Denise, said Kiera enjoys playing because Unified gives her a chance to play without pressure.

"All the kids have a chance to play and put their differences aside," Nicki, Kiera's sister, said.

This season there are about 20 children enrolled in the program, which is enough for two teams.

The children play for an hour starting at 6 p.m. every Friday. At the beginning of the hour, players learn basic fundamentals and then coaches divide them into teams to play a game.

Before the Parks and Recreation Department branched off into Unified Sports, Special Olympics offered activities for those who now participate in Unified Sports. Today volunteers coordinate Special Olympics and the Special Populations division of Parks and Recreation offers Unified Sports.

Enyart coordinates the program and two volunteers assist him at the ballpark with the players and parents. Parents assist with part of the coaching and organization of the children in their positions and batting line-ups.

"The parents are more than willing to help whenever and wherever to help achieve this goal and families get excited when they can contribute to a new idea or program," Enyart said.

The league follows the general T-ball rules of Youth Sports for the Parks and Recreation leagues. Some of the changes made to the rules include that after three pitches, a tee is available for players to hit from.

"Sometimes even though a child may be out at a base, we'll go ahead and let them run the bases so they learn the fundamentals of running the bases," Deghand said.

Through these adapted rules and the emphasis on enjoying the game, Enyart hopes Unified Sports creates a fun and educational experience for everyone.

"[Unified Sports] provides a unique social aspect for kids, including both the kids with and without disabilities," Enyart said.

Patrick O'Brian, whose son Alex plays in the league, said muscular dystrophy prevents Alex from playing on a regular baseball team.

"It is very nice seeing him round the bases," Patrick O'Brian said. "It is real exciting for him to feel like everyone else."

During the game, kids gave each other high fives and cheered as their teammate slid into home plate. No one cared that they should have stopped on first when the ball rolled foul or they were tagged out at second base.

"The program is unique and extremely successful because of our participants, families and parents," Enyart said. "I believe it is not only successful now, but will continue to grow and even become more successful in the future, especially with our current family involvement."

Julie Johnson, Matthew's mom, said Matthew always watches his brother play baseball from the stands, so it means a lot to him to be his teammate.

"Unified baseball is not about winning or differences, but about making friends and having fun," Deghand said.

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