Hitting the baseball and softball field in the summertime is a rite of passage for a lot of kids. And last month, a group of disabled veterans made sure some special young people who are differently abled had a chance to play, too.
The Wounded Warrior Softball Team hosted its second annual Kids Camp in Louisville, Kentucky, in June. Twenty boys and girls from 11 states who are missing arms and legs joined the travel softball team of veterans who lost limbs for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
From Batkids to Teammates
The Kids Camp began as an idea from longtime team volunteer Susan Rodio. The veterans often asked young children with amputations to serve as batboys and girls in the dugout. But last summer, Rodio thought it was time to take things to the next level.
“I was aware of the interaction between the batgirls and boys with our players, and I thought what better thing to do than put these kids and our guys together,” Rodio said.
It was a perfect pairing: excellent athletes who can help young players with similar physical disabilities pick up the basics of the game. And when Louisville Slugger came aboard, donating equipment and acting as a leading host, things took off.
The camp was held at the Lyndon Recreation Association in Louisville. And over the course of four days, veterans taught the kids everything from the basics of softball to more practical life skills.
Rick Redman, vice president of corporate communication at Louisville Slugger, described watching Greg Reynolds, a one-armed veteran, teach a young girl with one hand how to tie her shoe. That was something no occupational therapist had been able to successfully show her before.
“Her mother was in tears after,” Redman said.
Finding Confidence on the Field
Nine-year-old Jennifer Castro She slept with her softball mitt in her bed for two weeks straight before the start of camp. But she wasn’t always a softball fanatic. In fact, when her mother, Mara, brought home a glove, helmet and bat and drove her to softball practice for the first time, Jennifer questioned whether this was the right sport for her.
“As she walked down the hill to practice, she kept looking at me,” Mara said. “I didn’t want her to bail on it.”
Jennifer was born without her left arm, the result of a congenital amputation at birth. But she’s always been able to “figure out a way,” her mother said. “‘Can’t’ isn’t in our vocabulary in our house,” Mara said.
Jennifer is a whiz on the Ping-Pong table and now is becoming a pro on the softball field. When she ran up the hill after that first practice two years ago, her mother remembered seeing “a big smile on her face.”
“I got a text from the coach that said, ‘Your daughter killed it today,’” Mara recalled.
Jennifer has been playing softball for two years, but when Mara told her about the Wounded Warriors camp Jennifer was once again reluctant. She was afraid that it might make her sad to attend a camp alongside other kids with similar physical challenges.
According to Mara, her daughter said, “I’m just trying to forget about what I don’t have and concentrate on what I have.”
But Jennifer’s newfound love for softball outweighed her initial apprehension, and she decided to go.
“She’s absolutely loving it,” Mara said. “These guys are so inspiring. Everyone is just on an even playing field.”
Veteran Role Models
It’s interactions like these with adults who can relate to them that makes the camp so worthwhile for Jennifer and her peers. Just by virtue of their physical connection to the kids, the veterans are able to explain so much more than how to catch a fly ball and how to crouch in a ready position.
“It’s confidence, it’s independence, it’s being able to be self-sufficient,” Redman said. “Sports teach great life lessons.”
The bonds forming between the soldiers and the kids bridge generation gaps, and they are difficult to replicate anywhere other than the softball field. Finding somebody with a mutual understanding, on a field where all inhibitions are tossed aside is an invaluable experience.
“These kids couldn’t get this from people who don’t know what it’s like,” Mara said. “When [the soldiers] say they know how you feel, they know how you feel.”
Middle photo: Jennifer Castro with Jessica Grede, the sister of Wounded Warriors Softball Team member Josh Wege. All photos: Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team