Stepping up to the plate this season for Challenger Division Little League are more than 50 community members serving as 2010 volunteer coaches and field staff members for 80-plus boys and girls with special needs.

Among them are recruits returning from past seasons and first-timers, including local college and seventh- to 12th-grade students, business owners, professionals, Dos Pueblos High School cheerleaders and special-education workers.

Many are inspired by the program’s dedication and enthusiasm to make Saturdays the highlight of the week for the special players. Some get involved because of a relationship with a loved one with special needs; others simply for the love of children and the game of baseball.

With a little time, attention and encouragement, these children work hard to improve skills, try new things, and build confidence and self-esteem.

“They become our teachers,” program director Retta Slay says. “You look at their faces to see such determination and effort they put into just making it to the next base. Some run, walk while others hobble or roll their way along, but they all get there and without complaint. They take great pride in their accomplishments.”

In fact, the very first team of players was named the “Fantastiks” by board member Daniel Read. When asked why he chose this name for the team, he said, “That’s what comes to mind when I think of these special kids.”

In years after, names such as “Determinators,” “Sensationals” and “Incredibles” came into play. Some may ask, “What’s in a name?” In this case, everything! It is the validation of what we know to be true — the heart and soul of children with special needs is no different from any other child so many of us overlook.

Volunteers are often reminded that our players are kids first, and kids with special needs second. In fact, they are more alike than different.

“Challenger baseball has been really inspirational,” fourth-year volunteer April Craddick said. “Despite most of their ‘disabilities,’ these children work hard. Being with them is the perfect way to brighten up anyone’s day.”

Twins Caitlin and Lisa McClelland, USCB grad students, state “Thank you for so much for providing us with one of the greatest experiences of our college years.”

Future volunteer opportunities with special-needs adaptive programs include after-school basketball skill instruction at the Page Youth Center, from 3:45 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays from April 20 to May 26; an early summer baseball camp for Challenger kids with the Santa Barbara Foresters, during three half-days in June; and a “Ride a Bike without Training Wheels” bike camp for children and adults with disabilities June 14-17 at the Earl Warren Showgrounds.

Training will be provided for each program. Individuals and groups are welcome — perfect for service organizations.

For information on volunteering with the Challenger Division in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, contact Slay at 805.681.9165 or Click here to check online for the variety of help needed throughout the year.

Challenger baseball is for boys and girls age 5 as of May 1 through 18, or still in high school, with a physical, developmental or intellectual disability, beginning Feb. 27 and running through May 22;  wheelchair users included! Registration remains open throughout the season. Scholarships can be provided. No child is turned away.

Community members are welcomed to visit the games and cheer and applaud the players on Saturdays during the season. Free season passes are available to all!

Click here for schedule updates.

— Retta Slay is the director of Challenger Division Little League for Santa Barbara and Ventura counites.