2004-05-12 / Sports

Pony Baseball VIP program plants seeds for special needs kids

By Keith Jajko
Special to The Moorpark Acorn

By Keith Jajko Special to The Moorpark Acorn  

'HERE'S THE WIND UP AND THE PITCH'-A father pitches to his son during a VIP baseball game involving the Agoura Pony League. The VIP program lets youngsters with special needs experience the fun of America's pastime.'HERE'S THE WIND UP AND THE PITCH'-A father pitches to his son during a VIP baseball game involving the Agoura Pony League. The VIP program lets youngsters with special needs experience the fun of America's pastime.

An Agoura-based youth baseball organization is helping children with special needs and is growing significantly each year. Organizers hope to spread the concept statewide, with assistance from a well-established children’s charity.

  The Agoura Pony Baseball VIP Division provides a quality baseball experience for about 30 children and young adults whose limitations make it difficult to participate on "mainstream" teams. In just five years the program has grown nearly four times larger from the only eight players to 30. Organizers are working hard to continue the expansion locally and beyond.

The VIP Division now features four teams of players who are visually or hearing impaired, physically disabled, or mentally or emotionally challenged. The players are assisted by volunteer coaches and players from conventional teams who assist VIP players as "on field shadows" every game. The program also gets support from players on the Agoura High School baseball teams, who willingly volunteer their time.

  "We hope to use our experience as a template to show other youth baseball leagues why they need to do this," said Richard Isaacs, the division’s director. "Children who can benefit from this program are in our communities—we just don’t know about them and haven’t reached out to them—yet."

  The league has an excellent opportunity to expand this concept to other communities in California thanks to a grant from Variety, the Children’s Charity of Southern California, Tent 25. The Los Angeles Chapter of the international charity, which has roots in the entertainment industry, has provided a grant to help with "start-up" assistance for other leagues, and to provide player scholarships to defer the cost of participation.

  Participants in the VIP Division get the benefits. "Players get to play baseball, and learn how to enjoy the game as players and as fans," said Ted Martens of Moorpark, father to one of the VIP players. "My son looks forward to coming out every Saturday because it gives him an opportunity to be with other kids, and he feels good about participating in a mainstream youth baseball league.

"As a parent of a son with a developmental disability, it’s really great to see these kids and their parents come out and enjoy the event," Martens said.

  "What surprised and pleased me most was the camaraderie that develops between our VIP players and shadow volunteers," said Isaacs. "The experience is just as valuable for players in our mainstream divisions."

  The VIP Division plays a 10-game season, ending in mid-June. Most games are played at Lupin Hill Elementary School in Calabasas, with other contests at Westlake Elementary School. Players range in age from 6 to 16; there are three sets of brothers in the league.

  The program is attracting attention outside the 101 Freeway corridor. Players now come from as far away as Moorpark and Woodland Hills. "In addition to the on-field experiences, our VIP players are experiencing an outpouring of support and kindness," Isaacs said.

  The season was launched by local product Jeff Suppan, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who wrote each player individually to congratulate them on their participation and wish them well. Instructors from West Coast Baseball volunteered their time to run practice clinics for the players, and a representative from the Los Angeles Dodgers visited a VIP game on Sat., May 1, and has arranged for a "Day with the Dodgers" on May 16 for VIP players and their families, courtesy of the Dodger organization.

  For more information, please call Richard Isaacs at (818) 888-9890.

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