Program aids disabled athletes

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Challenger coach Dave Flauss and his 12-year-old daughter Bethany assist Zac Johnston, 19,  during grand opening day for Walker Little League April 12 at Hutchinson Park. The Challenger division is composed of 53 area youth with developmental and physical disabilities.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Challenger coach Dave Flauss and his 12-year-old daughter Bethany assist Zac Johnston, 19, during grand opening day for Walker Little League April 12 at Hutchinson Park. The Challenger division is composed of 53 area youth with developmental and physical disabilities.

With a little bit of patience and a knack for baseball, Challenger coach Dave Flauss and his 12-year-old daughter, Bethany, participated in the grand opening of Walker Little League on April 12 at Hutchinson Park.

The game, which lasted about an hour, gave Zac Johnston, 19, a chance to bat and play “defensively.”

Bethany helped him when needed.

She and Flauss assisted Johnston and other youths who have developmental and physical disabilities as they played the game.

Known as the Challenger Division of Little League, the program helps youths enjoy the full benefits of Little League participation in an athletic environment structured to their abilities, organizer Sandy Leblanc said.

In addition to learning how to properly play baseball, the division also provides therapeutic and socialization benefits; helps increase players’ self-esteem; provides opportunities for them to mainstream into other divisions of play; and teaches them the value of teamwork, sportsmanship and fair play, she said.

To keep the program going, the Pilot Club of Denham Springs received a $1,000 matching grant from the Pilot International Foundation to support area youth with significant developmental and physical disabilities who participate in the Challenger Division of Little League Baseball through Walker Parks and Recreation.

The Pilot Club of Denham Springs uses the money to purchase equipment, including helmets, protective gear, balls, bats, tees, bases and gloves to meet the needs of a wide range of sizes and abilities, Leblanc said.

Founded in 1989, the original Pilot Club program consisted of two teams, but rapidly expanded in the 1990s and 2000s.

Today, more than 1,000 leagues in seven countries offer the Challenger Division and more than 30,000 children participate, she said.

The Challenger League is open to boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 18, or anyone up to age 22 that is still enrolled in a high school program that faces a physical or mental challenge.

The rules of the Challenger Division are simple, Leblanc said.

Teams may include as many as 15 to 20 players. Players are assigned to a team based on a combination of size, age and skill level, and use “buddies” to help them, as needed, during the games.

A combination of player pitch, coach pitch and t-ball are also used during games.

Buddies can be Little League players, family members or other approved volunteers. When possible, each player uses the same buddy for the duration of the session, LeBlanc said.

The Pilot International Foundation is the charitable arm of Pilot International, a global organization with approximately 25,000 adult and youth members who are working together to improve the quality of life in local communities and throughout the world, Leblanc said. The Pilot Club focuses on helping people affected by brain disorders and disabilites through volunteer activities, projects and fundraisers, she said.

For information on how to join the league, call Lelanc at (225) 235-0466.