The crowd cheers as a young boy hits the baseball and rounds the bases: first, second, third, and comes up to home plate … all with the help of his walker. Chris, a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy, makes his first home run with the help of the Challenger Division of the Dos Pueblos Little League.

Now entering its third full season, the Challenger Division is a nonprofit baseball program that adapts to the needs and skill levels of children with physical and developmental disabilities, ages 5 to 18 in the Santa Barbara County. The program has doubled each year and currently supports six teams of children with physical and/or developmental disabilities, or “challenges” to playing baseball.

This year’s teams include children with physical disabilities such as vision impairment, hearing loss or deafness, tight muscles, cerebral palsy, wheelchair users, and other developmental challenges such as Down’s syndrome, autism, asperger’s and other chromosome disorders. In addition to playing against other Challenger teams, the children also play side by side with other DPLL teams where major league players from nonchallenger teams spend an hour as Challenger buddies every week throughout the season.

Prior to 2004, it had been 35 years since the county had seen such a program. It all started when Keaton Slay, a then 6-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome, told his mom he wanted to be on a baseball team. Not to discourage her son, Retta Slay, a founder of the Challenger Division, began making calls throughout the county in search of a Little League team that would be able to adapt to her son’s “exceptionalities.”

No such program existed until acting Dos Pueblos Little League board president Daniel Read answered the phone. He gave the duo a challenge of his own — they had two weeks to recruit the kids and families and, if successful, the DPLL board would provide the rest. With one month left in the spring 2004 season, 8-10 kids joined together, eager to play baseball, and the Challenger Division was born.

The Dos Pueblos Challenger Division plays from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. every Saturday – with off-dates on March 29 and May 24 — at Girsh Park in Goleta. Challenger registration is open throughout the season until full. For more information about the Dos Pueblos Little League Challenger Division, click here then select “Challengers.”

Vi Nguyen is a Dos Pueblos Little League parent.