Monique Wilson has been a fan of Challenger’s Field since her first introduction. The reason is pretty simple.
“Because that’s where Jeremiah learned to talk — on that field,” Wilson said.
For the first seven years of his life, Jeremiah and his parents lived in an uncomfortable silence. Diagnosed with autism, Jeremiah didn’t speak, he didn’t communicate, not even to let them know he was hungry or tired.
That changed when she signed him up to play baseball in a league specifically designed for children with disabilities.
As the game unfolded, Wilson and her husband were brought to tears in the stands when something amazing happened.
“He walked up to his coach and said, ‘I want to bat! I want to bat!’ He said it three times,” Wilson remembered.
A partnership between the city of Walker, La., the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce, other civic groups, and local companies, is raising $300,000 to build a new ballpark for children with disabilities outside of Baton Rouge. The field will include artificial turf, which allows access to all and also significantly reduces the countless rainouts the Challenger’s league endures on the conventional grass-and-dirt youth league fields now used.
“This has been a journey for us,” Walker Mayor Rick Ramsey said. “The city of Walker started with a recreation program for children with disabilities three or four years ago. We started with 20 kids. At last count, we have 80 enrolled.
“Right now, we are playing on infields and outfields designed for standard baseball. The risk is too great for the kids who play with disabilities, however. So this has become a big project to build a better field, and it’s one everyone feels could leave a legacy for these children.”
Nicole Elmore works at the Denham Springs Branch for Regions Bank. She’s a former Regions Bank Better Life Award winner, works part-time as a constable’s office deputy and has served as a foster parent to some 30 children. She first learned about the potential of the Challenger League when she was nominated to serve in Leadership Livingston, which is sponsored by the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce.
“Going to my first Challenger League ballgame opened up my eyes to a new life,” Elmore said. “You had parents up against the fences, kids running around and no one had a care in the world.”
She joined fellow members of the leadership class who wanted to make a new Challenger’s Field a reality. When they began enlisting companies for help, she went back to work on her own employer.
“I’ve been working at Regions for nine years, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of Regions,” Elmore said. “Not only for pitching in, but for asking, ‘What more can we do?’ It’s easy to work a job that you enjoy every day when those you work with are just as passionate about helping others.”
Mark Ducoing heads Consumer Banking in the South Louisiana market for Regions. He said that when Elmore comes asking for help, she’s hard to ignore.
“Nicole Elmore epitomizes everything our associates try to do, by doing more,” Ducoing said. “She has been a driving force for this project.”
Not everyone on the eight-person leadership class jumped in with innocent enthusiasm. Kresten Brown works for Forte & Tablada, Inc. Engineering. He’s familiar with the Miracle Field in Baton Rouge and realized how challenging raising funds and building Challenger’s Field would be. Working with fellow leadership team member Susan Abels, Brown successfully applied for a grant from the Ripken Foundation to build the venue in Walker.
“I have a civil engineering background,” Brown said. “When this came up, I’m thinking, ‘Holy cow!’ I’m thinking how much it will cost and how significant a challenge this would be. But we decided to take a chance and never looked back.
“When Regions came forward, they helped out not only with a financial contribution but also raised awareness by producing a promotional video that gave us the means to get others to support us.”
On a muggy night, two teams take the existing grass-and-dirt field for a league game. Nicole Elmore, Kresten Brown and other members of the Leadership Class coach on the field, guiding athletes to the ball and offering encouragement. The Mayor is in the middle of everything. With each swing, with each throw, the crowd erupts from small grandstands filled with parents, grandparents, siblings and friends.
The message is obvious. Everyone is a winner.
Lawson King watches as his daughter, Keegan, plays. She grew up at ballparks, watching her sisters play fastpitch softball competitively while her father coached. Now, she’s the athlete of the family.
“It’s pretty simple,” said King, who donated $25,000 to help build a new field. “It gives kids with special needs an athletic chance, and we’re using this field as an avenue to bridge gaps in society. What happens is the other kids now see these kids in a different light. You see a compassion come out. I believe you can’t kill a stereotype in one swipe, but this a great start.”
Bo Graham is a huge baseball fan, always has been. The Walker native has made a huge donation to building the Challenger’s Field in memory of his granddaughter.
Addie Blair was born in May 2013.
“I saw pictures in social media about this league. So when my granddaughter came along with Down syndrome, I thought this was perfect. When she was old enough, she’d have a place to play,” Graham said.
Addie was 19 months when she was anesthetized during a procedure to test her for leukemia. It was three days before Christmas.
“She never woke up,” Graham said softly. “When we first found out she had Down syndrome, I didn’t know what to expect. But I learned this league allows kids to be as normal as anyone else. That’s why I wanted to do something to remember her.”
For now, the players, the parents, their coaches and families make do on one of the smaller fields on the sprawling Sidney Hutchinson Park athletic complex. It’s a temporary home.
Thanks to its political, civic and corporate leaders – and families who have been touched by the magic a night of baseball can bring – Challenger’s Field will soon be a reality.
“Baseball’s the great American sport,” Mayor Ramsey said. “Out here, every player is a hero. Every kid can be Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio. For the parents, this takes them out of the world of the child with disabilities and puts them in the world of sports, where they can be just like everyone else.”