TEMPLE TERRACE — Several years ago, Puerto Rico natives Andy Reyes and his wife, Sheila Robles, moved to Florida to make a better life for their son, Andres Reyes, who, as a result of his premature birth, is blind and has autism spectrum disorder.
Upon settling in Brandon the couple combed the greater Tampa Bay area in search of programs and other resources available to youngsters like him with disabilities.
One flier amid a host of handouts happened to catch Andy's eye at a meeting the pair attended to seek help for their son, who will celebrate his 16th birthday on Sunday.
The leaflet gave an overview about a local baseball league designed for youngsters with physical and mental challenges.
"I never dreamed my son would ever play any kind of sport, but we decided to check it out," his dad said.
They did, and since 2010 Andres has participated in Buddy Baseball, a fall and spring non-competitive program for special needs boys and girls ages 8 to 22. The league celebrated its 100th Saturday of play Oct. 22 celebrated its 100th Saturday of play at the Family Recreation Complex in Temple Terrace.
"This program makes him feel so happy and he's made a lot of friends," Andy said of his son. "We've also developed a second family that serves as a wonderful support group."
Andres sums up his thoughts about his chance to play baseball in one word: "Awesome."
"They gave me a ball that beeps," he said, so he's easily able to detect where it is.
Founded in 2009 by financial planner Russ Oberbroeckling, a father of two able-bodied daughters, Buddy Baseball draws kids from five counties and more than 90 schools and pairs players with buddies to assist them. In seven years, it has grown from 36 players and 38 buddies to 88 players, 93 buddies and 50 coaches.
"I'm just so happy to see the joy this league brings to kids who are now able to participate in a team sport in a setting where their special and unique needs are understood and embraced," said Oberbroeckling, a Temple Terrace resident. "We've been overwhelmed by the community support of our league and look forward to seeing it grow even more.
Joyce and Greg Garrett enrolled their son Andrew, now 20, in the program during its inaugural year. He has autism coupled with attention deficit disorder.
Even though Greg's job transfer in 2012 meant a move to Longwood, a suburb outside of Orlando where coincidentally there is a similar program for special needs kids, they've opted to make the 1 ½- to 2-hour one-way commute Saturdays during Buddy Baseball seasons so Andrew can continue to play.
The main reason, according to Joyce, is that their son, whom she describes as a "homebody," always looks forward to going. Plus, he doesn't adapt well to change.
"It's Andrew's thing and it's helped him be more social," she said.
In Julie and Jack Ames' case, it truly is a family affair in that their three children — Maria, 20, Christina, 18, and Anna, 15 — are together almost every Saturday during Buddy Baseball season.
Both Maria and Christina, who have autism spectrum disorder, play in the games, and Anna serves as a buddy.
"That's what's really nice about it for us," Julie said.
What's more, Tampa Steel Erecting Company, Jack's place of employment, has been a sponsor of the program for several years.
The Brink Foundation, a private Tampa-based family foundation that promotes social justice and equality, was the title sponsor for Buddy Baseball's 100th Saturday event. The Tampa Bay Rays also joined in the celebration with pitcher Jake Odorizzi, outfielder Corey Dickerson, Rays radio announcer Dave Wills and Raymond the mascot all making appearances.
For more information, visit buddybaseball.org for more information.
Contact Joyce McKenzie at [email protected]