As they in the opening round of the MCAL playoffs Tuesday, the baseball team had a spring in its step.
The Red-tailed Hawks beamed afterwards in anticipation of a semifinal matchup with rival Justin-Siena tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Albert Park in San Rafael. But while the win elicited smiles, those emotions paled in comparison to the display three days earlier on the Tam High baseball diamond.
The occasion was the Challenger League (more info attached at right), an organized program started four years ago by longtime local resident Janet Miller. The program pairs kids with special needs and a desire to play organized sports with “buddies” – primarily high school and middle school athletes – to assist them.
Tam’s baseball team participated in a Challenger event last Saturday, and while the Hawks technically were the ones doing the giving, they were getting back even more, according to Tam baseball coach Mike Terry. The looks on the faces of Terry’s players (see photos at right) said it all, he said.
“It was just awesome,” Terry said. “I always preach to these guys that while you’re playing and after you’re done playing, find ways to give back to the game. They had a chance to do that with this event and it was incredible.”
Miller, whose 18-year-old son Connor Barbee is autistic, created the program through Mill Valley Little League in 2009. The idea, she said, was quite simple: give kids with special needs the same chance to participate in organized sports.
“These kids generally have to watch their siblings play sports and they’re usually on the sidelines,” Miller said. “This gives them a chance to play.”
Although Connor didn’t take to baseball himself, plenty of other kids did – as many as 30 kids participate in Mill Valley each year. Word spread quickly, sponsors backed the program and, most importantly, local athletes stepped up to serve as buddies.
“We have an overabundance of buddies, which is just great,” Miller said.
With help from the Mount Carmel CYO organizers, she expanded the program to basketball three years ago with the .
Tam senior quarterback Graeme Black, who is headed to Williams College to play football in the fall, participated in his first Challenger basketball event as a freshman and has been hooked ever since.
“It’s a very powerful experience,” he said. “It’s just so great to be able to put a smile on a kid’s face. And it impacts you just as much if not more. Organized sports have made a big impact on my life and I think everyone deserves a chance to participate in them.”
The Mill Valley Challenger baseball league usually runs 8 weeks through early June – this year's season ends June 3 – with games played at . Challenger Divisions of local little leagues exist throughout the U.S., and the local team occasionally travels to play other Bay Area teams.
Miller reached out Terry after her younger son, 14-year-old Tyler Barbee, made the freshman team at Tam. Tyler has long participated in the program as a buddy. Miller said the power of Saturday’s event was written all over the faces of the parents of the varsity players.
“It was just as empowering to the parents of the varsity players to watch their kids interact with the players,” Miller said. “It was just such a positive experience for everybody.”