TEMECULA, Calif. --
In Spring of 2012, a new program with Little League International Baseball, Challenger Division came to Temecula, Calif., in hopes of allowing children with any kind of mental or physical disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or others to play baseball.
The program allowed the children a judgment free environment to play baseball at their own pace and nurtured sportsman-like behavior as well as improving self-esteem.
Capt. Dustin Maggard, an avionics officer with Marine Aircraft Group 39, heard about this program from his wife, who decided to attend and see what it was all about for their daughter who struggled from her own disabilities.
After discussing the details of the program with each other, they both agreed that the program was a great opportunity for their daughter. However, Maggard also wanted to get involved in the program. That’s when he started coaching a team.
“As excited as I was to be a part of this new program, I knew I was going to need help coaching these children,” said Maggard. “After thinking about who could help, I suggested asking Marines to volunteer.”
The Temecula Valley Challenger Baseball Program started its first season with only 12 children and two Marine coaches, and grew to 90 children and eight teams this season. The high number of children joining the program meant it needed more volunteer coaches.
“If we were to have any hope of letting all of these kids play, we needed more than just myself and another Marine, so I sent out an email to all the volunteer outlets within our unit,” said Maggard, now the lead manager for the Challenger Division in Temecula, Calif.
After reaching out to the units in his command, about 12 Marines volunteered. When Maggard told these Marines they would be working with special-needs children, they seemed a bit reluctant because they were worried these children might be too fragile to play the game.
“After (the Marines) saw a child hit his first baseball and his face light up with joy, they dove right in,” said Maggard.
Now, a little later into the season, more than 18 Marines with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton volunteer with the teams every Tuesday and Saturday for practices and games.
Parents show their appreciation any chance they get for these men and women who provide services to not only their country, but to the community as well.
“The parents express their feelings to me after every practice and every game,” said Maggard. “They appreciate these young Marines coming out here and helping their kids to play this game. The bond that develops between the Marines and the children, and then the parents and the Marines, is just amazing.”
The staff who work with the program also develop relationships with the Marines, because they know what it means to have them volunteering.
“A lot of the kids might not know what these Marines do, or even what a Marine is. All they know is they come to every practice and every game to help them play a sport that they love,” said Phil Brown, director of the Temecula Valley Challenger Baseball Program. “The Marines have become an integral part of this organization, because they do everything and anything they can to ensure these kids can play ball. Without the Marines, we wouldn’t have the season we’ve had.”
The children are not the only ones benefiting in this arrangement. The Marines say they are gaining something as well.
“This is just as fulfilling for me as it is for the kids,” said Lance Cpl. Kofi Ofori, an avionics technician with Marine Aircraft Logistics Squadron 39 and volunteer. “Everything I do during the week, all the stress at work and in my personal life, means nothing compared to how I feel knowing I can give these kids the hope of having a couple of hours to just play.”
Parents gain from the experience as well; both civilian and military families use this program as an outlet for their children who have special needs to enjoy the physical activities baseball provides.
“It’s great to see the volunteers in the community, especially the Marines, who come and help with (our) kids,” said Capt. Scott Pabst, a parent with the program, 3rd MAW Marine and Sacramento, Calif., native. “They’re out here making a difference in the lives of these children.”
William Pabst, Pabst’s son and a player with the Mariners, said he loves playing baseball with the Marines and wants to fly helicopters like his father when he grows up. William also hit a homerun during a game, making the 7-year-old that much more excited about one of his favorite sports.
Ofori, a Washington, D.C., native, shared what giving back means to him, and why it’s important.
“My favorite part of this whole opportunity is seeing the smile on a child’s face as he hits the ball,” said Ofori. “It’s important for Marines to realize that we aren’t just serving to do a job for the Marine Corps, we’re here to help the community, too.”
With a few hours Tuesday evenings, and half a day on Saturdays, these Marines make this program a homerun for both parents and children.