PUNXSUTAWNEY â€” For many young boys and girls growing up, their dream is to one day play professional sports.
With America's pastime being baseball, many children have grown up with the dream of making the Big Leagues or playing Olympic level softball. But for some children, limitations are keeping them from being able to make that dream come true.
One local woman saw this as a problem and set out to make the most of allowing these children to live out a part of their dream right here in Punxsutawney, and it all started when she attended a Little League Challenger Division game that her nephew, who has Down Syndrome, was playing in DuBois.
That woman is Anna Rugh, and she has set out to create a Challenger League right here in Punxsutawney in cooperation with the Groundhog Little League.
"I have a nephew and a great-nephew who were born with Down Syndrome," she said. "My nephew, who is 6, played on the DuBois team last summer, and I'd never heard of a Challenger League.
I didn't even know what they were talking about when they said they'd signed him up for it."
After attending the game, though, Rugh said her curiosity had been piqued.
"My husband and I went to watch a game, and on the way home, I asked my husband, who had been on the Little League Board in the past, why Punxsy never had such a division or team in its league. He said they'd discussed it in the past, but it never fully came together. So, I spoke with a few board members and found out what I'd have to do."
It turned out what Rugh had to do was a bit of research and some organization in bringing together a presentation to make before the board.
"I presented before the board in October, and they approved it. So, here we are," she said.
The Little League Challenger Division is a program that allows developmentally and physically disabled youth to enjoy the full benefits of Little League participation in an athletic environment structured to
The league is open to special needs children, both boys and girls, ages 6 to 18 â€” or up to 22 years of age if still enrolled in school â€” and allows them to play an adaptive ball game.
"Basically, the Challenger Division was started in 1989, so it's been around a while, and it's always been a part of the Little League organization.
It's for both boys and girls, and it's for children whose disabilities would prevent them from playing in a Little League or recreational ball league," Rugh said.
The rules of the game are adjusted from the standard Little League rules to accommodate all levels of disabilities. No player will be denied, and Rugh said all the youth in the area with special needs are encouraged and welcome to play.
"The rules are a bit lax, and they allow the league to cater to the needs of the children," she said. "They encourage you to work with the special education departments at the school â€” which I've been in touch and worked with. No child would be turned away.
"But, with that said, if we look at things at the first practice and see that a child might be better served playing in a rec league or even in Little League, we might make that recommendation. It's especially for the kids who really wouldn't have a chance to play at all otherwise."
Because starting up such a league comes with the difficulty of forming teams from scratch, Rugh has decided to open the enrollment area a bit to encourage enough participation to make the most out of the experience for the children.
"I broadened the area to Brookville, Redbank Valley and Marion Center to make it more feasible to build a large enough group of children to form a few teams. DuBois, a league that was started by Sherry Martini, pulls kids from other areas as well, so we figured that might help us if we did so. I'm hoping we get enough for a couple teams come registration time."
Rugh said the Challenger Division also uses what it calls "buddies" â€” volunteers who are allowed to assist any player who may need help on the field, whether for batting, running the bases or playing the field.
"One of the things the Little League headquarters recommends is that, if we draw from a larger area, we keep outs and set it up like an actual game for the kids. But it's not a competitive league. The goal is to make it safe and fun, which is exactly why we have buddies â€” to be there to assist the kids with whatever they need and to help them enjoy the game."
Rugh said the buddies could be siblings, another Little League player or volunteer or even a parent, and the use of a buddy is optional. She said it's not just to help the kids on the field, though. Another aspect is that it helps the children build friendships with each other.
"The buddies are typically kids who are fairly close to the players' ages to introduce them to someone they can form a friendship with. We'll probably be looking for middle school or high school students once we see how many kids sign up to help make sure the buddies will have the proper level of responsibility, too."
Rugh said that her inspiration came from watching her nephew's game, and she really feels as if a league like this could go a long way in making a difference in the lives of so many local children.
"When we watched a game, there was a young man in a wheelchair, and he tried and tried to hit the ball," she said. "When he was finally able to connect with one, everyone was just so pleased for him. It was very special, and he just loved every minute of it. It was great to see, as he was pushed down to first base, how excited he was. But not only that, it was great to see how excited all of the parents were."
Games will be played in Punxsutawney, and the Groundhog Little League requires a $25 fee upon registration, which will be held this Saturday and Sunday at the B.P.O. Elks, 205 N. Findley St., from 1 to 5 p.m. each day.
Parents must provide childâ€™s proof of age at registration. This is the birth certificate issued by the state, not the hospital-issued certificate.
Parents also must provide two items as proof of residence â€” such as driverâ€™s licenses, vehicle registrations or utility bills for the year 2012 or the year 2013.
Anyone with questions or anyone seeking more information is encouraged to contact Rugh at 814-938-6655 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.