Four years ago, Sam Kelly, 19, asked his dad, “When do I get to play?” Sam, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 4, grew up watching his younger brother, Jake, play baseball.
The question prompted their father, Chris Kelly, to get in touch with the board of Pony Baseball. The league’s local president Ron Ensley, responded, “OK, but you are going to run it.”
Four years later, with Chris as head coach, the team has gone from 23 players to almost 50. It has given many children with special needs the opportunity to do what kids love to do, just be kids.
“It is amazing to see how a game like baseball can bring out the same sense of joy in these kids as it does in every other kid,” said Kim Bauer, a student spectator. ‘It’s easy to see how happy the game makes them when their face lights up after getting a hit and the crowd chants their name. It’s incredible to see the bonds of friendship and the way they cheer for one another and chant the names of other players on the team.”
“There was nothing for kids like Sam before we started this team,” Chris Kelly said. “If he wasn’t here tonight he would probably be home alone, playing with his cars or something, all by himself. Your heart breaks for kids who aren’t included.”
“What these kids and families of kids with autism struggle with the most is isolation… That’s been truly rewarding, just creating something that these kids can feel a part of, can be proud of, and feel like they are a part of the community.”
The hour-long games are split into two different age groups, and takeplace every Friday evening at Kyrene Akimel Jr. High, 2720 E Liberty Lane, Phoenix. Each week, a different team of older baseball players acts as helpers and guides for the younger children on the field.
“It is such a great thing what Chris does for these kids,” said his sister-in-law Tonya Kelly. “He has such a compassionate heart and it really makes a difference in these kid’s lives.”
“There are so many best parts, but I think my favorite thing is [the games] bring out the best in [our] community, not only in the kids who get to play, but in the parents, the supporters, the ‘field buddies’ who come out to help,” said Chris Kelly.
Editor’s note: Michaela Donlan is a journalism student at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and wrote the article as a class assignment.