LUMBERTON —As Jayla Jacobs was handed a bat and had her wheelchair rolled to a waiting batting tee at Sammy Cox Park, it was hard to miss her enthusiasm.
If her blue jersey wasn’t enough, her gameday attire was garnished with a red and white skirt and a bow in her hair that included a piece of a baseball.
“She’s a diva, she’s got to stand out,” her mother, Chavila Bullard, said with a laugh.
If anything stood out on Saturday though, it was Jacobs’ smile as she got pushed around the bases by Lumberton High School softball player Kortnee Floyd, pumping her arms back and forth to simulate running.
It was a smile matched around the field as the Exceptional Childrens Baseball League held its final games of its inaugural season on Saturday. After the four teams played, players were given medals and treated to a lunch of hot dogs and chips.
Run by the Robeson County Parks and Recreation Department, the league pairs teams of special needs players with volunteers, including local high school athletes, who help the players run bases, field balls and swing the bat.
There are no winners, no losers and no stats kept. Each game consists of two innings, with teams batting around the lineup each time. Players hit directly off a tee and each half inning ends with a grand slam.
“It’s tailored to fit each child’s need,” said Billy Roach, a program specialist for the county’s parks and recreation department.
To add to the environment, every child is introduced over a public address system while donning a personalized jersey and cap donated by Robeson Pediatrics. Parents and coaches also frequently don team colors, cheering as each child bats and moves around the field.
The league came to be largely because of the efforts of David Hester, whose son D.J. plays. While in Cary a few years ago, he saw a baseball game held by the Miracle League of the Triangle and felt like Robeson County could use something similar.
“The game I watched in Cary led me to the possibility and I guess that selfishly, I just wanted my son to play a sport like any other dad wants their kid to,” Hester said. “When you have a son you dream of them playing sports one day and you watching them and helping coach them.
“My son loves sports and I knew he would enjoy it and I felt like there were a lot of other kids that would enjoy it too, if we had the opportunity.”
Talks with the Lumberton Recreation Department led to scrimmages two years ago that attracted five to six kids weekly. Last year the numbers increased to 16 kids, though play continued in a scrimmage-like manner with the help of key volunteers such as Billy Wilson and Hoss Watts.
With the county’s resources, the league took shape this year and was organized into four teams and attracted 42 total players, Roach said.
The league’s popularity is attributed to both word of mouth and other channels, including local schools and the Innovative Approaches program at the Robeson County Health Department.
Hester said its enjoyment not just for the children but for parents, who have to be physically involved in most aspects of their children’s lives.
“Our parents can just sit back like every other parent enjoying a little league game and enjoy watching their child have fun, run around and do something that makes them smile,” he said. “It’s priceless.”
The inaugural season included help from both Lumberton and Purnell Swett high schools.
The season’s opening games were played at Swett’s varsity field in Pembroke, where players got assistance from the school’s baseball and softball teams. The final two weeks of the year had volunteers from the Lumberton baseball team last week and the softball team on Saturday. Some of the baseball players even came back for a second week.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Mackie Register, Lumberton’s softball coach and athletic director. “These kids enjoy seeing the athletes out here and the athletes get something out of it.”
Bullard was among the parents who discovered the league through Innovative Approaches and had her daughter try it.
“It’s hard to find things to do, especially in this community, so anything that she can do, I want to be involved in,” Bullard said.
The result was positive.
“She loves it. She’s going to be depressed that today’s the last game,” Bullard said.
Saturday was the last game, but not the end.
With baseball’s success, Roach said other athletic opportunities will soon be available for special needs children. He said that Robeson County Commissioners have funded a week-long summer camp in July and that the county is working on grants to help fund cheerleading and flag football programs this fall.
Next year’s baseball program, which could be renamed, is also expected to be spread more throughout the county.
“Since we have kids from all over the county joining us our plan is to make a trip to each one of the high schools and have an event there, just so the parents don’t have to drive so far and they feel a little bit of hometown spirit,” Roach said.
Hester has continually gotten good feedback and Roach said that giving the players a fun experience is a top priority.
“These kids are having the time of their lives out here,” Roach said. “For an able kid to get a brand new car or something for graduation, that’s what it feels like for these kids to come here out and play. It’s just overwhelming.”
Sports Editor Scott Schlaufman can be reached at 910-272-6111 or firstname.lastname@example.org