Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 1:28 am | Fair 67º


Playing for Fun in a Little League of Their Own

Dos Pueblos Little League rises to the challenge with a growing Challenger Division, and more teams at all levels and abilities

Saturday was game day for the Dos Pueblos Little League, and hundreds of ballplayers converged on Girsh Park for Opening Day ceremonies.

Under clearing morning skies, row upon row of teams presented themselves, saluted the American flag and anxiously looked forward to their games. While the teenagers in the upper divisions met and greeted old friends and rivals, tiny 5 year olds tried — not very successfully — to resist the urge to mess up the freshly chalked diamonds.

“This year is a banner year for the Dos Pueblos Little League,” said league vice president Steve Buratto. This year the Little League has managed to increase its roster by about 40 percent. Almost every division in the DPLL has increased by one or two teams, and this despite the flagging economy, he said.

“It’s amazing,” he said.

One of the divisions especially feeling the expansion is the DPLL Challenger Division, meant especially for children with special needs. In the roughly five years since this division, one of many across the country, was started by local mom Retta Slay, it has grown to about 80 players from five.

“The bigger we get, the more fun it is,” she said.

Slay said that when her now 12-year-old son, Keaton, told her five years ago that he wanted to play baseball, she learned there weren’t many options for a child with Down syndrome.

“I didn’t want to tell him there were no teams for him,” she said. So after calling around, she started her own.

“The Dos Pueblos Little League had a soft heart for this,” said Slay. League officials guided her into the system, she said, and it worked so well they took off.

Now Slay oversees scores of volunteers, from parents keen on having fun with their children to college students getting hands-on experience in dealing with special needs kids. Even a quartet of Dos Pueblos High cheerleaders is on hand to teach some cheering skills.

“I think this is phenomenal,” said Cory Bream, mother of Jake, 9, who has autism and epilepsy. She found the DPLL Challenger Division after disappointing experiences with another sport her son tried.

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You don’t need a scorebook to know a winning smile. (Michelle J. Wong / Noozhawk photo)

“The parents were so competitive,” she said. “They were bummed every time they put my child on the field.”

Now Jake, who sometimes likes to saunter from base to base instead of run them, plays pressure-free.

For Stacy Adams, whose 5-year-old son, Brett, is in his first year, it’s also a relief.

“There are lots of volunteers, and it’s a great place to meet other special needs parents,” she said, although the greatest thing for her is seeing Brett, who has autism, have fun. He gets a little better every time, she said.

Challenger games get as close to regular games as they can, while accommodating the children’s special needs. Safety is paramount, with each child guided by one or two “buddies” who are ready to step in to catch an errant ball, point kids in the right direction, or help the child move to the next base. There is no scoring, but there’s a lot of cheering from the bleachers.

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Ready to take to the fields of fun. (Michelle J. Wong / Noozhawk photo)

While Slay perhaps did not expect this program to get so big in such a short time, she is nonetheless prepared, already having become the Santa Barbara County coordinator for the Little League’s Challenger Division. With the new influx of players, she said, this Challenger division might be able to sort them into teams grouped by disability, or instead create more diverse squads.

Meanwhile, she and her crew are also gearing up to start new summer camp programs that incorporate volunteer training, which would lead to references, and could lead to local jobs for the volunteers. She and other volunteers are also hosting “Lunch & Learn” programs around the South Coast so interested people can find out more about children with developmental disabilities.

Slay takes her own success in stride, however, preferring instead to stay behind the scenes and direct attention to the program and its volunteers. For her, it boils down to one thing.

“We can sit around and complain, or we can mobilize,” she said.

In addition to Goleta, there are Challenger Division groups in Carpinteria and Ojai. To contact Slay for more information or to volunteer, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call 805.685.9165.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected].

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