As Asher Gabarra jubilantly ran the bases, nearly everyone on the field wanted to give the youngster a hearty high five.
Playing for the local District 8 Blue Jays, Gabarra was one of many athletes shining at bat and in the field on June 15 at the Little League Challenger Division Jamboree at Northshore Athletic Fields in Woodinville.
The 29th annual event took place on six fields and featured 12 squads from throughout the region, two rounds of games and a barbecue. The Mariner Moose even put in an appearance to the delight of everyone in attendance.
Founded in 1989 in Texas, Connecticut and few other states, Bev and Gary Newsome brought the Challenger program to Washington state a year later. According to the Little League website, the adaptive baseball program is designed for individuals — ages 4 to 18 (or up to 22 if the player is still enrolled in school) — with physical and intellectual challenges.
During the course of the jamboree on the different fields, some participants played in wheelchairs, some of them hit off the pitcher or the tee and there were parents, coaches and other volunteers along with FCA Baseball players on the fields to lend a hand.
Sarah Hudkins, whose son Trenton plays for the Blue Jays and got on board with Challenger when he was 8 or 9, feels that the kids who follow their idols on the Seattle Mariners can take part in their own games with their friends in the Challenger realm.
It’s a magical time for them, she said.
“I think that no matter what your ability, there is always a place for kids on the field,” Sarah added. “It might take somebody one swing to hit the ball and it might take them 30 swings to hit the ball. Everybody’s patient and I think when you also bring families together with children of all different abilities, you’re just always supporting each other. You have this huge network, not only on the field, but off the field.”
Trenton, who had his fan club of family members watching his game, likes playing first base and connecting with the ball at bat. After notching hits, he ran the bases while giving high fives to the other players.
Bev, the assistant district administrator for the Challenger Division from District 8, said the best part of being involved is “just coming out here and seeing the smiles on these kids’ faces that they are so appreciative of this program. And this program is the best — the best in sports, believe me.”
Gary, who passed away in 2009, was the district administrator for 26 years and Bev added that her husband made her promise to continue with the Challenger program since they started it in Washington.
It’s a special program for Bev and she has bonded with the kids over the years.
“They absolutely just love it and it just makes a difference in their lives, makes a difference in everybody’s life, even the parents, their brothers, their sisters,” said Bev, who received the Volunteer of the Year Award for the Challenger program last year in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Sam Ranck, director of the Challenger Division for Little League International, praised the volunteers and community for being a vital part of the experience along with the administrators, players and coaches.
He flew in from Williamsport to speak at the jamboree and noted before the games began that Little League’s core mission is “to give every boy and girl an opportunity to play baseball and softball, to build character and life lessons that come through that participation.”