Miracle League giving kids with disabilities a place to play in Petaluma
Seven-year-old Jack Busick has Down syndrome. He’s nonverbal. And two years ago he was diagnosed with leukemia.
The Petaluma boy went through ?18 months of chemotherapy, taking him out of school, away from his friends. All he was pretty much allowed to do was hop in a trailer hooked to his dad John Busick’s bike, and off they’d go.
Jack’s favorite thing on those rides was going to the American Little League fields in Petaluma and watching other kids playing baseball.
“He just wanted to be part of it,” John Busick said.
At Monday night’s Petaluma City Council meeting, council members all but guaranteed that by fall 2017, Jack - now in remission - will be part of it, even getting to play where those other kids do: Lucchesi Park.
The council approved a plan by a group of Sonoma County parents to bring a fully accessible baseball diamond and play structure to Lucchesi Park, with a groundbreaking set for spring.
Led by Jen Richardson, the group is operating under the umbrella of the Miracle League, a national organization that serves children and adults with physical and mental disabilities by bringing them their own baseball league.
The effort is part of a larger movement to bring adaptable play structures and inclusionary programming to North Bay children with disabilities, and marks the second such program in Sonoma County.
The first, the Challenger League, began in 1991, and serves about 120 kids annually through its fall league where they play at the Mark West Little League fields in northern Santa Rosa. Like the Challenger League, the Miracle League will also use “buddies” to help players on the field and off.
“It’s not only heartwarming, but also really important that students of all abilities are included, and they have the opportunity to have another place where they can learn from each other and feel part of the community, feel honored and respected,” said John Laughlin, the Sonoma County Office of Education’s assistant superintendent for special education. “It’s just an incredible effort, and it’s so important that this movement continues to grow.”
For Margaret Kuffel, a pediatric occupational therapist who serves families in Napa and Sonoma counties and has been involved with the Miracle League North Bay, the focus on bringing another inclusionary baseball diamond to the county represents one more option for her patients to go with their families.
“I don’t think that there are enough of those programs around for our kids, and I think having them in as many places as we can just makes those types of activities all the more common,” she said.
She was also particularly excited about the idea of having a publicly accessible playground in Sonoma County, which is planned to go next to the existing baseball diamond.
For people whose disabilities involve a lack of trunk control, there are swings available that cradle the body. And for kids who can’t leave their wheelchairs safely, there are swings where they can roll right up onto them.
“(The playground) is not just for kids with disabilities,” Kuffel said. “They could be swinging on a swing and next to them have a typically developing child, so they’re interacting with their peers whether their peers have disabilities or not. It’s supposed to be a universal approach.”
The baseball diamond will have special rubberized turf, be fenced and measure 200 feet from home plate to the outfield.
The privately funded, ?$2 million project will also have wheelchair accessible dugouts, stands and a concession stand. The Miracle League North Bay has partnered with various local and national organizations to help with funding, including the Petaluma Rotary and the Women’s Guild.
“We want it to be just like the Little League’s,” Richardson said. “There will be an announcer and a scoreboard. With the dugouts, they have to be deep because you’ve gotta get wheelchairs in there. They’re going to be 5 feet deep so you can swing in there with your team and not be squished, but comfy and hanging out.”
Richardson’s son, Liam, 12, has Down syndrome.
And, like Jack Busick, Liam Richardson just wants to play with the other kids, too.
Jen Richardson’s husband volunteers as a coach for their daughters’ soccer and lacrosse teams so Liam can participate.
“He picks up the (lacrosse) stick and plays. He blows the whistle,” Jen Richardson said. “He calls himself the assistant coach on the girls’ soccer team.
It’s our family’s way of giving him an opportunity, because he really, really just wants to be on the team.”
You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or email@example.com.