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Here, little things make a big difference

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Linda Stevenson is not unlike many mothers. She has difficulties with her young son. Few activities excite Chris, her 8-year-old. He is unfocused in school. He shows no enthusiasm on visits to Disney World or trips out of state. Playing baseball, though, is another story.

"Chris has some brain dysfunction and he's not real good with emotions," Linda said Saturday morning while her son played in the Challenger Division game at the Gulfport Little League field. "But this is about the only thing that we can get him up for in the morning, that he will wake up for and get dressed for on his own.

"At school, nothing excites Chris. He is sort of just there. He seizured all last night, which is out of it. But he managed to get here this morning. This is about the only thing he gets excited about."

That includes horseback-riding lessons.

"We have to force him out there," Linda said. "But he enjoys this."

Apparently, so do the other youths and parents involved with the District 5 program.

The cheering for the small accomplishments never ends. Each swing of the bat that makes contact, each advancement on the basepaths, each trot home, each thrown ball is a special moment. Each is a victory that pumps new life into both parents and children.

Mentally and physically impaired children up to 18 years old can play in the Challenger program, which is in its second season in Pinellas. The program began in Massachusetts in 1985.

Nationally, 566 league charters with Challenger Division play were in effect as of May 31, up from 325 last year, according to Arnold White, director of the Southern Region of Little League Baseball. In Florida, charters rose from 33 last year to 59 this year.

"We're teaching them just the same as you do regular Little League, explaining the fundamentals of the game," said Wayne Wright, assistant district administrator for District 5, "and letting them learn how to do it on their own . . . Some of these kids have been here two years in the league. They get better every game, it seems like. And they're having a ball doing it."

The District 5 program, which serves areas in Pinellas south of Ulmerton Road, has two teams _ the A's and Mets. The other program in Pinellas, District 12, has finished its season. It also had two teams.

Four games remain on the District 5 schedule. Players can sign up at anytime, at no cost, and play the next Saturday. For information, call Wright at 321-9565.

Linda Stevenson said she sees Chris' excitement for baseball most when it's time to leave the house for the ballpark.

"I mean, we can take Chris to Disney World, and he'll just walk around and not say a word," she said. "We went on vacation to New Orleans. The first day we got there, most kids would be up at the crack of dawn, ready to go see what's there, and what they're gonna do. Well, Chris slept till 11. When he woke up he's like, "Oh, we're here.'

"So, that's more of what we get out of it _ seeing the way he performs, the way he gets up and gets moving."

Sandy Price's 12-year-old son David, who has Downs syndrome, is in his second year in the District 5 program.

"When we started out with these kids," Sandy said, "there was not a kid out there who could hit a pitched ball. Every kid hit off that tee, and some of them didn't have the slightest idea even how to do that."

But by the end of last season, all that had changed. Every youngster could hit a pitched ball.

"The change in them in that period of time was unbelievable," Sandy said.

Pitching on Saturday for both teams was 14-year-old Jena Protomastro, a Gibbs High School student.

Why does she volunteer as a "Challenger Buddy?"

"Because I like helping kids," she said. "It's fun because when you help them and they have fun _ it's just fulfilling to me. When they come up and give you hugs, it's like, "Oh, this is great.' They can't do much else, and when you help them you just feel good."

The buddies can help both at bat and in the field. They can help a batter swing and run the bases. A buddy in the field can retrieve a batted ball, hand it to a youngster and give instructions on where to throw it. It is a process that requires a good measure of patience from the buddies.

"We have to repeat ourselves a lot," said Jena, a senior league softball player at Azalea. "But when they do learn it and they do it right, you just feel so good. Because, "Hey, I taught them that, and I know they learned it.' "

Scott Watkins' 5-year-old son, Jamey, was born with cerebral palsy. Scott stood next to Jamey and his wheelchair Saturday, acting as his buddy for the game.

Being involved in the Challenger program, Scott said, gives youngsters "a chance to be like others . . . They feel left out a lot. Kids come over to play with his brother (Aaron, 6) and then run off to play. Jamey really enjoys being around other kids."

Roy Geilen served as a buddy to his wheelchair-bound son, Randy, 6, while his wife Michelle watched from the stands.

"It's good to see the kids out there doing something other than just sitting at home watching TV," Michelle said.

Sandy Price has an older son playing senior league baseball. Tempers sometimes can be short at that level, she said.

"But you come here," she said, "and these kids, no matter what they do, they're smiling. Everybody's happy. You go home and you ask every one of these kids who won? "Oh, we did.' I mean, they all won. They all believe that. No matter what they do, they're happy about it."