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
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
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
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.”