Challenging limitations

Published 11:09 am Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pelham Parks and Recreation Director Billy Crandall sings Happy Birthday to Madeline Seales of Maylene during the Opportunity League closing ceremonies May 18 in Pelham. The Opportunity League is one of three special-needs baseball leagues in Shelby County. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

By WESLEY HALLMAN / Sports Editor

Like many fathers, Bob Schilli had butterflies in his stomach as he watched his son Bobby step up to home plate in his first little league baseball game.

Years later, Schilli beams with pride after seeing Bobby develop his baseball skills through the years.

“He’s developed into one of the big hitters,” Schilli said.

Bobby may not have had an opportunity to sharpen his baseball skills in other communities. As a special-needs child, Bobby’s ability to experience the same joys his friends and classmates do are rare.

Thanks to the Challenger League in North Shelby County, Bobby can go out and emulate his favorite stars on his own field of dreams.

“The kids see their siblings playing and they see everyone in the stands cheering for them,” said Schilli, the Challenger League director. “It gives them an opportunity to go out there and be like all the other kids. It’s a big deal to them.”

Shelby County is the state capital for special-needs baseball leagues with three separate leagues offering mentally and physically challenged children an opportunity to fulfill their childhood dreams.

The Challenger League, organized by the Oak Mountain Youth Baseball and Softball program, is the longest running league for special-needs children in Shelby County.

Within the past three years, city government officials and the Easter Seals collaborated to create the Opportunity League in Pelham. In 2010, Calera started its Field of Angels league for special-needs children.

The three leagues each share the same values — giving special-needs children an opportunity to experience a typical childhood and allowing adults and children the opportunity to work with those who are less fortunate.

Schilli said he’s noticed a huge difference in his son due to his participation in the Challenger League.

“He’s certainly developed a lot of self-confidence,” Schilli said. “The kids develop a little independence.”

The Challenger League is open to any challenged child age 5 through 18, or 21 if the participant is still in school, Schilli said.

The child is placed on a team based on skill and safety considerations rather than age. In addition to a coach for each team, each player is assigned a “buddy” to work with during games. A “buddy” is any person who is a willing volunteer, genuinely desiring to assist in the program. The Opportunity League in Pelham also utilizes a “buddy” system.

Schilli said the “buddy system” has benefitted both families with special-needs children and those without.

“It gives the kids and parents an opportunity to share their support and enthusiasm for the game with a group they would normally spend very little time with,” Schilli said. “It’s just neat to see everybody work together.”

Schilli said the Challenger League is always in need of sponsors and buddies. Anyone wishing to help sponsor the Challenger League through either donations of time or money is welcome, Schilli said.

“You’ve really got to experience it to understand it,” Schilli said.

For more information on the Challenger League, contact Schilli at

For more information on the Opportunity League, contact Kelle Keith at

For more information on the Field of Angels, contact Chris Bunn at 669-5217.