Challenger League gives disabled kids a chance to play ball
By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Two years ago, Shrewsbury Little League Coach Chip Collins took onto his team Camden Chenevert, a child who has a severe form of autism. That choice has inspired Collins, and others, to form a league for local youths who share the same challenges and aspirations as Camden.
The Challenger League is for players with intellectual or physical disabilities, and gives them a chance to play baseball, Collins explained.
“It gives them that opportunity – to play a great game,” Collins said.
Collins, a special education instructor at Hopkinton High School, said he specifically asked that Camden, who is now 8 and attends Floral Street School, be on his team.
“He instantly became an instrumental player,” he said. “Every single player just took to him.”
Teammates knew Camden couldn's hit the ball or run the bases without assistance, but every player wanted to help Camden “be successful,” Collins said.
“The first time he came up to bat, he hit the ball off the tee and ran down the first baseline with my son. The cheers that came out from the spectators and parents – it was exciting. It was just the way to do it,” Collins said. “I saw his mom and dad smiling, tearing up. This needs to happen more often.”
There has also been a ripple effect in Camden's life, from the ball field to the classroom. Teammates were interacting more with Camden in school.
Camden's mother, Lauren Chenevert, said she wanted Camden to have the benefits that come with sports, including the socialization, camaraderie, and friendships that are part of being on a team.
Sports are a big part of the family's lives. She coaches field hockey at Shrewsbury High School. Camden's father, Sean, coaches girls” lacrosse at Worcester Academy.
She praised Collins as “an amazing coach and amazing person” who taught his players to accept Camden. “Those kids are looking out for my son,” Chenevert said.
This will be Shrewsbury's first Challenger League, said Collins, who has been on the Shrewsbury's Little League Board of Directors for eight years. The league will be open to boys and girls age 5 to 18, or up to age 22 if they'se still enrolled in high school.
The advantage of having a Challenger League is that players with disabilities can be among their peers and form friendships, Collins said.
Games are three innings, and each player gets a chance to bat and run the bases every inning. Volunteers are close at hand to make sure everyone's safe. There are no outs and no score, but the kids get a chance to play ball, which Collins said is more important.
“This is about providing the opportunity to play, to put on the catcher's gear if they want, to field the ball,” Collins said.
In October, Chenevert's field hockey team surprised her by holding a Playing for Camden Day, in which the team raised $200 to support Shrewsbury's Challenger League.
Collins said the league is looking for sponsors to help defray the cost of equipment and other expenses.
Games will be held Sunday mornings at Dean Park. “I's expecting it to be exciting and emotional at the same time,” Collins said.
“Any night of the week, you go down by Dean Park, and you can see two to three baseball games, softball games, happening. Now, they can be part of that. This is what this town does, and it's a big thing,” Collins said. “Everybody gets to play.”
As a parent, Chenevert said, getting a child with special needs out into the community can be scary, “but you got to take the leap.”
“Sometimes you'se afraid of what's out there, but it does take a village to raise a child, and the support is amazing,” Chenevert said. Having Camden play Little League “turned out to be the experience of our entire lives.”
“It's the most unbelievable feeling Camden has ever had in his life,” Chenevert said. “Every kid should have this feeling.”
Registration for players and volunteers is available through the Shrewsbury Little League website, www.shrewsburylittleleague.com.
Here are some more photos, courtesy of Camden's family:
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