- Associated Press - Saturday, February 18, 2017

BRISTOL, Va. (AP) - A new recreation option that could benefit large numbers of area special needs children began with a request from just one.

Bristol Virginia Little League’s new Challenger league is scheduled to begin this spring, thanks to a $12,000 Little League grant to upgrade the Eastern Little League field, organizers said.

The idea arose last year, according to Andrea Birchfield, the league’s vice president.

“I had a parent approach me last year who had a T-baller who is autistic and he wanted his child to play,” Birchfield said Thursday. “I realized when he asked that we were not equipped to handle special needs children. I told him the only way we could allow that was he (parent) would have to assist him with batting and running the bases. I thought we really need to meet a need in the community we might have been excluding inadvertently.”

From there, the league’s board secured grant funds and unanimously approved beginning the program. It will be open to special needs children between the ages of 4 and 18, or older if they are still enrolled in public school. It is expected to attract children from both Bristols and Washington County, Virginia.

“It will be specifically targeted to kids with mental and physical handicaps that would prevent them from participating in a standard Little League,” said Rick Watts, grant administrator.

Challenger is offered through Little League’s national organization. The nearest leagues are in Johnson City, Tennessee, and Marion, Virginia, Birchfield said.

Described as “adaptive baseball,” the games will be played at the Eastern Little League field at 380 Valley Drive. The facilities are being modified through a $12,000 Little League grant with the work performed by the city’s parks and recreation employees.

“We’re renovating the field to make it handicap accessible. We tore down the dugouts and we’ll be rebuilding them to make them wheelchair accessible, widening gates, access to restrooms and widening the sidewalk,” Watts said.

The improvements are expected to be completed in three weeks. That labor counted as a match for the grant, Watts said.

“I appreciate the Little League for taking the initiative and finding the funds to get this off the ground to make this happen,” Mayor Bill Hartley said after viewing the work. “It’s a unique program, a great program for the community. It lets our children who may have special needs to participate like any other child would.”

Games will be played on Saturdays starting in April and the season is expected to include six to eight games, Birchfield said.

Watts said Little League players will also be involved.

“It’s a different kind of league. We don’t put the score on the scoreboard, we don’t record outs and everybody gets a chance to bat,” Watts said. “It’s more about their experience than being a competitive league. I’m excited because I have a child in Little League and some of our current kids can be mentors so they’ll get to go out on the field with them. Cheering them on, helping them field the ball, helping them at bat.”

Organizers aren’t sure how many children might participate. An informational meeting is scheduled Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. at the Bristol Virginia School Board office, 222 Lee St.

Depending on interest, this program might ultimately open the door to an adult league, according to Bryan Kimberlin, the league’s safety director.

“With us set up to do the kid’s Challenger division this year, that could - potentially in the future - allow us to offer this to adults as well. Adults with Down’s syndrome or confined to wheelchairs to be able to participate in a sporting program would be great,” Kimberlin said.

Birchfield said their goal is for the program to grow.

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Information from: Bristol Herald Courier, https://www.bristolnews.com


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