NEW PALESTINE — With her legs pulled up on the dugout bench where she was sitting, Shelby Harris reached down and tightly laced up her tennis shoes.
Shelby, 11, of Eastern Hancock Middle School, was the first baseball player in the dugout, putting on her shoes, adjusting her socks, excited to get on the field and play some baseball.
Born with Spina Bifida, where the spinal column does not form properly around the spinal cord, Shelby has physical challenges when she walks and runs, her mother Lynette Harris said.
But, on game day, she’s just another ballplayer enjoying the game like any other Little Leaguer might.
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“We’ve always tried to make sure she has the kind of opportunity where she can do everything she wants to,” Lynette said.
The Challenger Baseball League was formed this year by Todd and Cindy Roseberry of New Palestine. They aspired to have a special league for any child in Hancock County who wants to play baseball but has a need keeping them from participating.
They were inspired to start the league by their son Cole, 7, a Brandywine Elementary School student who has Down syndrome.
The league is open to boys and girls in the county ages 6 through 18 with physical and mental challenges.
The community needed something like this, where children with special needs can play the same games other children do, Cindy said.
With the help of the New Palestine Youth League board of directors, they were excited to see their field of dreams come true this season.
The children gather once a week for a game where all players get to bat, play in the field and learn about a game many have only watched from a distance.
“The support from family, teachers and peers, has just been amazing,” Cindy said.
While officials don’t really keep a running score, the children get to play a real game thanks to the help of the area youth league officials who allow them to use a league field each week.
They have enough children to form two teams and have coaches, baseball caps, uniforms and they follow the rules of the game as closely as they can.
Jim Sleeth, a Doe Creek Middle School baseball coach, also helps out. His players are the buddies on the field, helping the children hit and field the ball and get around the bases safely.
“It’s not so much about baseball as it is taking some pride in your community and helping out,” Sleeth said. “That’s what we’ve tried to teach our middle school players and they jumped on board.”
Matthew Norton, 13, heading into eighth grade, played baseball this past season for the Doe Creek Middle School team and enjoyed being a buddy on the field, he said.
“It feels good once you help them,” Matthew said. “It really like puts things in perspective.”
Norton and a handful of middle school baseball players volunteered their time, even after their season ended, and said the opportunity exceeded their expectations. Many called the games rewarding and a fulfilling experience.
Shelby, who despite living with Spina Bifida, likes to challenge herself, but she was somewhat apprehensive about being part of a baseball team. In retrospect, she’s glad her mom signed her up to play baseball for the first time.
“I really do like it a lot more than I thought I would,” she said with a smile.
Her favorite part is running the bases and chasing after the ball — things a person with Spina Bifida has a difficult time doing, but that’s what the league is all about, officials said, giving children with different abilities a chance to grow and prove themselves.