Joel Westbrook is just like any other eleven-year-old boy—he loves baseball and dreams of one day being a baseball superstar. In September 2017, Joel finally had a chance to live out his dream when the Miracle League Field Sports Complex and Playground opened at ℹ Warner Park in Chattanooga, which provides children and adults with disabilities the opportunity to play baseball.
“When we heard about the Miracle League, we knew it was going to be perfect for Joel so he could finally realize his dream of playing baseball and hitting the game winning run,” says Wendy Westbrook, Joel’s mom. “He was born with spina bifida, which we knew would give him physical limitations, so I never even expected to be the mom at the ball field, cheering from the sidelines.”
Operated by the YMCA, the Miracle League of Chattanooga is one of over 300 programs across the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, and Australia serving more than 200,000 children and adults. The first Miracle League was launched twenty years ago in Conyers, GA, by coach Eddie Bagwell who believed all children—regardless of disability—should have the opportunity to play baseball. Miracle Leagues use a custom-designed field with a cushioned rubberized surface, wheelchair accessible dugouts, and a completely flat surface to eliminate barriers for wheelchair-bound or visually impaired players. The format of the game is also different than a typical baseball game.
“Something that is unique about the Miracle League is that each player gets to bat each inning, and the person that bats last gets to hit a home run—so everybody hits and scores,” says Nicole Brogden, YMCA Youth Program Director, who manages the program. “It is a non-competitive environment, and the most rewarding thing to see is everyone cheering each other on. Each accomplishment is really celebrated, which is so unique.”
The inspiration to launch a Miracle League in Chattanooga came nearly five years ago when Channel 9 news anchor Kim Chapman visited the Miracle League field in Dalton, GA. She began talking with other community leaders and volunteers about bringing the program to Chattanooga, and the group launched a nonprofit to formalize planning efforts.
“It has been an amazing effort with a lot of people and partners involved,” says local commercial real estate developer Mike McGauley, who volunteered to help manage the project. “We have had over 350 contributors, and it has been so gratifying because of the number of people who stepped up and felt like this was important enough to invest in and make happen. I think it sends an amazingly positive image that this community cares about these kids.”
The $2.5 million complex was made possible through a broad network of partners and funders, including the City of Chattanooga, which provided land at Warner Park for the Miracle League field, multi-sport field, and playground. The Rotary has donated over $500,000 to the project from the Chattanooga club and clubs across its international network. Other major funders have included BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation, Miller Industries and the Miller Family Foundation, ℹ McKee Foods Corporation, Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Realty Center, ℹ Unum, Coca-Cola, and PlayCore. The project was led by local contractor GenTech Construction, who also made a donation, and several subcontractors also donated services. The ℹ YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga is partnering with the Miracle League to manage the program.
“It is an absolute blessing for us to be able to partner with the YMCA to manage the program because it fits right into their programming and mission,” says McGauley. “It also allows us to do something very important. If there is a family who can’t pay to participate, they can apply for a scholarship through the YMCA, ensuring every child who wants to play can play regardless of financial ability.”
The YMCA manages all aspects of the program, including volunteer recruitment, which is a critical component of the program. During a Miracle League game, each player is assigned a “buddy”—a partner who assists the player in hitting the ball, running the bases, and protecting them in the field. Buddies can be siblings, schoolmates, parents, youth groups, athletic teams, or anyone who wishes to volunteer their time. Over 500 volunteers assisted with the program in the first season.
“Seeing the dedication of these volunteers is so inspiring,” says Cara Standifer, Marketing Director for the YMCA. “Many of our Miracle League volunteers are building relationships that go beyond the program, helping the Y realize its mission of strengthening the community.”
For Westbrook, the volunteer buddies help her enjoy the game just like any other parent. “With the support of the buddies on the field, I don’t have to worry about helping Joel and being right by his side. I can just sit back and watch him play with the biggest smile on his face.”
The Miracle League complex includes a new all-inclusive playground that is specially designed for kids with disabilities, with a rubberized surface, a variety of interactive and social play components, multiple slides at various heights, and adaptive swing seats. It provides a place for siblings to play during games and players to enjoy additional playtime before and after games. The playground is open for any child to enjoy during regular operating hours at Warner Park.
The Miracle League program also provides a much-needed connection and support network among families and children participating in the league. “At the games you can talk with other parents, and the kids understand each other because they all deal with challenges,” says Westbrook. “All of the parents can relate with each other and share advice about a particular issue their child may be having, doctors, or other challenges. It’s just a great time for everybody to get together and connect.”
The YMCA encourages the community to get involved as volunteers or sponsors. As the YMCA continues to expand the number of players in the Miracle League, the need for volunteers will continue to grow. The long-term vision for the program is to grow to support 10-12 teams and introduce other activities on the multi-sport field, further expanding access to sports programming for children and adults with disabilities.
“A lot of parents that I’ve spoken with are overjoyed,” says Brogden. “It’s a unique experience to be able to see their kids do something that they may have thought their child would never get to do – play baseball and come out and just get to be a parent while their kids get to be players.”
Each game is truly a miracle on the field—giving kids and adults an opportunity to experience the camaraderie and joy of a team sport.
“The Miracle League gives Joel an opportunity to be active and play on a team, where everyone is encouraging each other,” says Westbrook. “It doesn’t matter which team is hitting, Joel is high fiving all of the other teammates and telling them good job. It’s something we never thought he’d have the chance to do and now has been made possible through the Miracle League.”