On Sunday, "Challenger Sports," a joint program of Genesee ARC and the YMCA for physically, intellectually and developmentally disabled kids ages 5 to 21, marked its 10th season with an alumni baseball game at the Little League field in Batavia. Alumni players faced off against alumni coaches and volunteers.
Pictured: alumni volunteers, coaches and players; half of them are in this photo...
...and here is the other half.
Shelley Falitico, director of development at ARC, recalled the program's humble beginnings in 2006.
"When we started, it was 'Challenger Baseball,' " Falitico said. "A local parent expressed interest, and contacted ARC and the YMCA. We started recruiting volunteers, we sent out notices for kids with special needs, and we had 70 kids sign up. When it ended, parents came up to us and asked, 'What's next?' "
Since then, the program has grown to include indoor soccer, tennis, dance and, over the last year, basketball and swimming.
Many of the Challenger alumni, according to Falitico, have gone on to play softball in the Special Olympics.
"They've been learning and playing for 10 years," Falitico said. "I take some pride as the coach, helping them learn the fundamentals of baseball on a real baseball field."
From left, alumni volunteers Eric Houseknecht, Craig Houseknecht, Danielle Hirtzel, Brian Falitico and Mark Houseknecht.
Falitico also expressed great pride in the volunteers who have devoted their time to the players over the last decade.
"When we first started," she said, "we had coaches, but I needed more volunteers to help the kids learn different fundamentals of the game."
For that, she turned to area high schools. After recruiting young volunteers, she provided disability awareness training -- and the rest, as they say, is history.
"They volunteered with us all through high school," Falitico said. "What I found really touching was that when they came home from college in the summer, they would call me and say, 'Are you still doing that baseball program? I want to help.' And when I contacted them about a 10-year alumni game they said, 'Absolutely.' "
Some of these volunteers came from as far as Pennsylvania and Boston to participate on Sunday. One gentleman, according to Falitico, was home for the weekend from South Carolina, stopped by to congratulate the team, and then flew back home.
However great the difference the volunteers have made in the kids' lives, the impact has gone both ways.
"(The volunteers) see kids with a variety of disabilities just wanting to get out there and play the game and have fun," Falitico said. "Their perseverance and dedication taught a lot of them to appreciate what they had, and I've had a couple volunteers say to me that it changed the way they viewed themselves and the world."
Pictured current "Challenger Sports" baseball players, coaches and volunteers; half are in this photo, along with Assemblyman Steve Hawley...
...and here is the other half.
The alumni game was preceded by a regular Challenger game with current players. This game ended with the standard Challenger outcome, which is always a tie.
"(Our goal) is just to make it a fun game where everybody gets a chance," Falitico said. "Everybody gets an at-bat, everybody gets to swing -- no matter how many times -- until they hit the ball. We want the kids to learn good sportsmanship."
However, this did not stop Falitico, who coached the alumni players, from squeezing in a small boast about their 30-7 victory over the alumni volunteers.
"We mercy-ruled them," she joked.
For more information about Challenger Sports, call Genesee ARC at 343-1123 or the YMCA at 344-1664.
Assemblyman Hawley throwing the inaugural pitch of the alumni game
"Hammerin'" Hank Stratton, a 10-year veteran player, up to bat.
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