Children across the country love baseball.

And thanks to a division of Little League called the Challengers, thousands of kids with different mental and physical needs are playing the games and making new friends along the way.

The Challenger division allows kids without special needs to assist those with them by creating a buddy system. Each set of buddies plays as a unit, and the pair gets several chances at the most exciting positions, such as batting. Teams are grouped according to abilities rather than age.

“We sometimes think there’s a big dividing line between the Challengers and the kids without disabilities,” says Joni Hruska Fichter, the assistant district administrator for the District 16 Challenger League, which is based in the Houston area. “But in reality, it’s helping them see the abilities in each other. It’s amazing to see those kids grow into more compassionate people.”

The League turned out to be a perfect match for one family in the pool industry: That of Michael Miller, president of Miller Pools in Pasadena, Texas.

When his area began assembling its first Challenger League in 2004, Miller asked his daughter Molly, who has mild autism, if she wanted to join. As soon as he saw her enthusiasm for the sport, Miller jumped in as a coach.

Challenger volunteers invited children from all over the city to kick off the season, expecting a turnout large enough for two teams of nine players, and at least one buddy to accompany each player. But 48 players and more than 100 buddies showed up that day, making the District 16 Challenger League an exciting hit from the start. 

But the real excitement was yet to come. The next summer, Miller’s local Challenger Division was chosen as one of two teams in the nation to travel to the White House and play a game of tee ball for then-President Bush.

Hruska Fichter and her staff scrambled to secure flights, meals and accommodations for 48 kids and their parents. A caravan of other family members followed everywhere, snapping photos and cheering the team on. Then came the day when they played on the South Lawn, in front of the President.

“Molly was beside herself with excitement,” Miller says. “She just loved the whole trip.”

As volunteer efforts increased, the league continued to grow; by 2009 the West University district boasted eight teams and a staff of several dozen  — mostly volunteers, like Miller, who helped coordinate games and equipment. As the years passed, he found himself taking on more and more responsibility until he arrived at the position of director.

The job, he says, is one he could never manage alone. “It’s quite an organization requiring a great deal of volunteers.” Miller says. “It’s pretty incredible to watch this machine work.”

But the most important donations of all, Miller and Hruska Fichter agree, come from the high schoolers who share their talent and passion with the Challenger kids.“It’s amazing to watch these big girls and boys, who have so much else on their plates, come play with these kids,” says Hruska Fichter. “And then in turn to see those little Challenger kids blossom, and be able to go outside their comfort zone and talk to other children who are not so unlike they are.”