Mitchell Wisinski has worked with Oliver for three years in the Darien Little League's Challenger program, which serves children with physical and mental disabilities. But it's difficult to tell who gets more out of their relationship.
"I get a good feeling whenever I'm with him,'' said Mitchell, a junior at Darien High School. "I know after we're together that he had fun, and I also had fun. We had an instant connection and enjoy being with one another."
Charlie Santos-Buch started the Challenger program 13 years ago for the Darien Little League. The philosophy is to give all children an opportunity to play baseball in a fun and supportive environment. Darien's Challenger league, the largest in the state, includes children from New Canaan and other Fairfield County communities. "We started it because it was the one part of the community that wasn't getting any attention,'' Santos-Buch said.
The players enjoy the physical benefits. The social aspect, however, might be even more important. "Team spirit is one thing they get out of it,'' he said. "It's also social interaction. And the parents become friends as well. It's nice for parents of special needs kids who sometimes feel isolated."
The progress some of the Challenger players make is stunning. "We have kids who come in here and can't do anything,'' Santos-Buch said. "By the time the session is done, they can really crank it and develop some skills. It's fun. It's not too intense. It's all about balance."
Santos-Buch, the Challenger commissioner, runs the program with co-directors Annmarie Medwid and Beth Siemers. Maria Farren, Molly Morgan and Liz Gilbert coordinate the buddies. Dan Lovegrove of Recollectics Sports Memorabilia sponsors the program.
"Buddies" such as Wisinski help the program to succeed. "They really make the whole program,'' Santos-Buch said. They serve as personal guides for the players and provide support when needed. But the players are encouraged to be independent, and buddies lend a hand only when necessary.
The program has 40 buddies, with many more on a waiting list. They assist 24 athletes, and programs are offered in winter and spring. The winter session ended Saturday with a trophy presentation for the players, many of whom will resume at the Challenge Field at McGuane Park in April.
"We put a lot of thought into pairing the buddies with the right player,'' said Farren, who coordinates the Buddy program. "It's not a random thing. We want to get the right fit for each player."
The whole atmosphere is fun and supportive from the moment the Challengers players walk into the Town Hall gymnasium. "For the time that we're here, Oliver gets to feel like he's one of the regular guys,'' Mitchell said. "It's something I look forward to every week."
The league is seeking adult volunteers to assist with the program. Contact Charlie Santos-Buch at firstname.lastname@example.org , Annmarie Medwid at email@example.com , or Beth Siemers at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Has your child participated on the Darien Little League Challenger program? What are the benefits? Start the discussion below!
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