This year, an All Kids Can Baseball Camp welcomed the Challenger Team from Glocester, RI, TOPS (The Outreach Program for Sports) for a return visit. TOPS was one of the first teams to participate in an All Kids Can Baseball Camp nearly ten years ago and we were thrilled to welcome them back. We spoke with TOPS coach Beth Keeling about the team's start and evolution and their recent experience at Fenway Park
All Kids Can Blog: How did your team get its start?
Beth Keeling: It began on the sidelines, actually! My son was coaching a soccer team and I was there to cheer for him and the team. I met Jason, a five-year-old with Down syndrome, at the game and started kicking a soccer ball around with him on the sidelines. His mom came over to say hello and I said, "He's such a good soccer player. He's awesome and he's only five." Jason's mom then told me that there were no inclusive teams for him to join.
I was a special ed teacher and I did not even realize the lack of options for young children with disabilities. At first I suggested the Special Olympics, but you have to be at least eight years old to join. So, we decided to start our own program.
AKCB: How did you launch the program?
BK: Two of my sons were students at Ponaganset High School at the time. I asked them and their friends to help with the program. At first, we had ten kids with disabilities and 25 high school student volunteers. The program lasted for eight weeks and we had a big party at the end to celebrate. Then parents, volunteers, and the whole town agreed that we couldn't let it end.
The high school gave us use of the gym on Sunday mornings for free, which is so generous, since the space is in high demand. The first week we moved to the gym, we were asked by the Little League to be their Challenger team. Then the local soccer and basketball teams asked us to be part of their organizations as well and it blossomed into a year-round sports program.
AKCB: How many kids are involved in the program now?
BK: We have 35 kids with disabilities from nine surrounding towns. Once word got out, everyone wanted to join! Ages range from five years old to a 57-year-old man with Down syndrome. The team is mostly comprised of teenagers, but we love including people of all ages and all abilities.
Each Sunday, we have about 40 high school students who volunteer as well. We don't advertise for volunteers to be a part of the program, they just come! It's so heartwarming when previous volunteers come home during college break and rejoin us on a Sunday. So many of our volunteers have gone on to be special ed teachers, too.
AKCB: How did your team enjoy its All Kids Can Baseball Camp experience?
BK: We were one of the first teams to attend the camp when CVS Caremark started the program. Jason, who inspired our sports-program, was five at the time. He went again this summer and now he's a teenager!
AKCB: That's really amazing.
BK: My joy came from watching the kids and seeing the joy on their faces throughout the day. They were so incredibly happy.
The day got off to a rough start for us. Our school bus actually broke down on the way there! It was pouring rain and we had to wait for another bus. We arrived late and had to modify the day's schedule. I was worried everyone would be tired and upset that we missed out on part of the day, but it was just the opposite! They were so excited and overjoyed by the whole experience.
The batting coach Greg Colbrunn was truly amazing. I don't have enough praise for him! He was incredibly awesome with our kids and just so cool.
We didn't get home until after midnight and I thought everyone would fall asleep on the bus from the long day, but they were wild with excitement. The parents asked if we fed the kids caffeine. Our team had so much spirit and took joy in everything.
Everyone had the best time. And, the Sox won!
AKCB: Sounds like a great day. You've worked with people with disabilities as a special ed teacher and as a Challenger coach. Have you seen a change in opportunities and attitude?
BK: Absolutely. Today, people of all abilities are celebrated and there is a strong push for inclusion. When I started teaching nearly 30 years ago, I worked at an institution for kids with disabilities. I had so many dreams for those kids, but never did I think that one day children with disabilities would be so embraced. We've come a very long way and it's been a wonderful thing to watch.
Our town has been so supportive. We live in a gorgeous community, inside and out, with incredible people with huge hearts. TOPS would be a difficult program to run if acceptance and town support didn't exist. But, Glocester is always asking what else it can do to help! The town recently threw us a big BBQ and invited our team to sing the national anthem. That kind of support doesn't happen everywhere. Our team is a whole community effort.
All Kids Can thanks Beth Keeling for speaking with us and for being an inspiration to her team and community.