For three seasons, Clayton Burke played T-ball at the Coquille Sports Complex north of Madisonville. And for three seasons, he played as vigorously as any other little boy.
In fact, his mother, Susan, said he was known to throw himself on the baseball when it approached him in the field.
But this summer, Clayton’s watching from the stands.
Clayton, 7, has spina bifida — a developmental congenital disorder that affects the spine. He played T-ball in his wheelchair, but his parents weren’t sure he could make the jump to coach-pitched ball.
Now, Clayton and other special needs children throughout St. Tammany Parish eagerly await the construction of a Miracle League field at Coquille. Susan Burke brought the idea of the adaptive field to recreation district officials late last year.
Miracle League is a national outfit with about 250 organizations in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia. The groups serve more than 200,000 kids and young adults, and their mission statement is “Every Child Deserves a Chance to Play Baseball.”
Fields consist of an asphalt base layer with a rubberized surface on top. The fields are seamless and can be rolled out or poured into place. They are painted to look like traditional baseball fields and are ideal for people who use wheelchairs or walkers.
“We were out at his brother’s game recently, and Clayton kept asking me when his team was going to start playing,” Susan said. “I had to explain to him that the field wasn’t built yet. I rolled him over there and showed him where it’s going to be. There’s nothing there now except piles of dirt, but he understood. He’s been very patient.”
Burke estimated several months ago that the Miracle League field would cost about $500,000. With the help of some local donors, as well as a handful of fundraising events held recently in the area, they were able to make a small dent in the total.
But now, Coquille has partnered with Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, which operates a Miracle League facility on the south shore.
Stephen Dwyer, chairman of St. Tammany Parish Recreation District No. 14, which operates Coquille, said Children’s will be the fundraising arm for the field and for ancillary facilities, such as a parking lot.
Gina Lorio of Children’s Hospital, who runs the New Orleans-based league, also will handle league organization on the north shore, Dwyer said. The park will provide space for the field and will maintain it. Archbishop Hannan High School, which is next door to Coquille, is eager to provide student volunteers to assist, Dwyer said.
“It’s a perfect mix, with Children’s and its experience running a league like this,” he said. “Coquille can provide the space, operate it and provide help with coaches and mentors. Hannan can provide volunteers. Everybody brings something to the table.”
Dwyer said the Miracle League field now is part of Coquille’s master plan and build out and, to that end, a landscape architect has been retained. He said it is his goal to have the necessary money for the field by the end of summer and to build the facility this fall.
“It may take a bit longer, but we all are incredibly excited to be able to bring a league like this to the north shore,” Dwyer said. “There’s nothing like it up here and it will provide an invaluable service to a large number of people.”
That’s just what Susan Burke envisioned when she brought the idea to Coquille last year.
“(Clayton’s) such a social creature, he loves to go out to the ball field to talk with people,” she said. “We all know he really would love to play. When the field is built, he plans on having all of his friends from school over to watch him play.”
For information on fund-raising, call Lorio at (504) 894-5415 or Coquille Sports Complex at (985) 892-9829. Information on the parent group and its chapters can be found online at http://www.miracleleague.com.