The Challenger division of the Federal Way National Little League has received a $50,000 grant to renovate the baseball facilities and make them more accessible for those who use electric and self-propelled wheelchairs and other mobility aids.
The Challenger division was founded in 2010 as a dedicated program for boys and girls, ages 5 to 21, with intellectual and physical challenges.
“We have kids in wheelchairs, kids with Down syndrome, autism, speech impairments,” said Kirk Westrick, coach and director, who started the program with his wife, Amy. “We make it work for all of them.”
The Westricks’ daughter, Macy, 24, has cerebral palsy and has used a wheelchair for a majority of her life. She has always been an athlete at heart, her parents said, which led them to create a team that could meet her needs and allow her to participate in the sport she loves.
The Challenger division of Little League is for kids who have often been segregated by their abilities. The program gives them a chance to play a real game on a real field while wearing a real uniform with one of two teams, the Rockhounds and the Rivercats.
Provided by the King County Youth and Amateur Sports Grants fund, the capital improvements from the $50,000 grant will be made to “enhance accessibility for disabled youth in South King County who want to play baseball,” according to a press release on Aug. 17.
The league expects to start construction in the fall so the project will be completed and ready for the spring 2019 season.
The Little League property, located at 450 SW Campus Drive in Federal Way, is privately owned by the league. Since the Federal Way National Little League was founded in 1959, the fields and all encompassing aspects have been fully volunteer-operated.
Currently, the walkways of the baseball facilities consist of loose gravel and dirt, except for an approximately 3-foot-wide paved path that travels down the center of the main walkway to the concessions and bathroom facility, but does not lead to any of the four baseball fields.
“Kids with wheelchairs, this is all they have right now,” said Tim Hay, a vision director for Federal Way National Little League, motioning toward the path.
On game days, there can be more than 450 athletes, volunteers, and family members at the ballpark, which leaves the narrow pathway extremely crowded and hard to access at times, he said.
The upcoming renovations will help athletes such as Zackery Heckinger, 10, who attended the grant award ceremony at the fields and is a catcher for the Challenger division team, the Rockhounds. Zackery uses a self-propelled wheelchair as his primary mode of transportation. As he rolled himself down the slim path, the wheels of his chair got caught several times in the gravel lining both sides of the path, causing him to stop, reverse, and re-navigate his way toward the gathered crowd.
His mother, Korie Heckinger, said the program has skyrocketed the confidence of her son. At the beginning of his baseball career four years ago, Zackery only used his wheelchair during play.
Now, he has gained the strength and confidence to walk between the bases — a huge milestone for many of the athletes with physical disabilities, she said.
King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, who represents the Federal Way area, presented the grant Aug. 16 to several athletes, parents, coaches, and board members at the Little League fields. He said he has always been a strong advocate for the Challenger program, especially when it came time to decide where the grant money should be allocated.
If Federal Way is going to grow as a city, it has to be family-friendly to all of the families, he said.
“I felt very strongly this [Challenger] program here was really beneficial to the region,” von Reichbauer said. “I want to see it grow more so that it becomes a magnet for families with disabilities to bring their daughters and sons.”
The Challenger division season begins in April, marking its tenth season. The program started with six players and has grown to 28 athletes.
Sally Bigby, 16, has been on the Challenger division Rivercats’ team since the very first season.
“It gives her the opportunity to do things she sees her brother do,” said Stacy Bigby, Sally’s mother. “When she first started, she couldn’t hit the ball. Now she’s hitting a line drive to the outfield. It’s kind of like therapy, but fun.”
The Challenger division has drawn volunteers of all ages. During each game, other teams from the Little League will substitute in as a “buddy” for the each Challenger athlete. The buddies help assist with batting, base running and defense, but only as needed, according to the Little League Challenger Division website.
“Kids line up to be buddies,” Hay said. “They can’t wait. It gives them a chance to step up and be part of the community.”
By the end of the season, more than 75 kids will be buddies for the Challenger teams. Kirk Westrick, who is also the director and coach of the Rolling Thunder Power wheelchair soccer team, said Little Leaguers excitedly beg to be buddies for the upcoming season.
Another major benefit of the Challenger division is for the parents, said Amy Westrick, noting that a sense of freedom and independence comes from seeing your child on the field, watching them accomplish and overcome so much in each game.
“There’s a feeling of ‘OK…they can do this without me,’” she said.
Amy recalled one parent who described the Challenger division by saying: “This is good for the soul.”
For more information about Federal Way National Little League and the Challenger division, or to get involved, visit fwnll.org.