By: Heather Aadahl
Harrisonburg, Va., February 15, 2012- Last winter, a proactive Harrisonburg parent contacted Dr. Thomas Moran of the JMU Kinesiology department and presented him with the idea to create a program where children with mild disabilities were able to play softball at their individual ability level.
The parent explained to Moran that her son was unable to maintain his placement on a Little League team when his skills did not develop at the same time as his teammates'. The child had also participated in the Challenger baseball program, which targets children with more severe disabilities. "The problem [the parent] found is that Little League was too advanced and Challenger was too simple," explained Moran. The mother was convinced that her child was not the only one who struggled with the athletic transition and encouraged Moran to pursue such a program.
The first "Play Ball" program was implemented last spring by a James Madison University student who was a former softball player and created the program as her independent study under the supervision of Moran. "Her task was to organize it each week, come up with the activities and lessons, and then use her connections with the softball team to pull in softball and baseball players," said Moran. The teams embraced the program and at the end of the first semester, decided that the program needed to continue year-round for the children of Harrisonburg.
3:45 Sarah Harms and Megan Shinaberry, the Play Ball co-coordinators, arrive at Memorial Hall to set up equipment for the afternoon.
Play Ball is a program offered under the umbrella of Overcoming Barriers, an organization that offers nine specialized programs to children with disabilities."Overcoming Barriers is a program that involves JMU students and kids with disabilities from the community," said Sarah Harms. "It gives the kids an opportunity to be active and learn different sports skills." The organization offers a diverse collection of programs for students, which include opportunities to participate in golf, fitness, dance, aquatics and self-defense. "It allows the kids to be involved in programs that many people have said they will never be able to do," added Harms.
Harms has been a coordinator with Overcoming Barriers for two years and is responsible for planning and implementing the programs that are offered to students in the community. During the spring semester, she works with Megan Shinaberry, a catcher for the softball team, to coordinate between Overcoming Barriers and the softball team. When the previous student who ran Play Ball graduated, Shinaberry offered to take over because the program parallels with her career aspirations. "At home, I work at a therapy center for autistic kids so that's what I want to do; I want to be an occupational therapist, so it's awesome," said Shinaberry.
Shinaberry and Harms are not the only people involved with the implementation of Play Ball. "Dr. Moran oversees everything and comes to pretty much all of [the programs]," explained Shinaberry. In addition to attending the weekly programs, Moran is responsible for training the program staff, maintaining funding and recruiting program coordinators. Shinaberry and Harms are responsible for planning activities and communicating with the student mentors who volunteer with Play Ball. As the program coordinators, Shinaberry and Harms are assisted by Erin Boyle, the student program director who works under the direction of Moran. While Shinaberry and Harms spend their time focusing on weekly interaction with the children, Royal focuses on supporting the coordinators and mentors.
4:00 The volunteers and mentors arrive at the facilities for briefing on the plan for the afternoon and which softball skills will be focused on for the day.
The volunteers and mentors for Play Ball are JMU students who are enrolled in Moran's classes or are interested in working with children who have disabilities. Many of the volunteers have experience with athletics, but many do not. Moran provides guidelines for the staff participants to make it as simple as possible for them to have direction when participating with Play Ball. Each mentor is paired with one child in order to have low mentor to student ratios for more hands-on assistance.
"All the mentors and volunteers are great. They're all JMU students and in Dr. Moran's class or are volunteers with Overcoming Barriers, so they come from everywhere but we make sure that each child has a mentor so that they're never doing nothing and are getting the full hour of work," explained Shinaberry.
"Play Ball is definitely a program I have come to love," added junior outfielder Jasmine Butler. "The more I learn about the kids, the more I learn about myself. The program gives us a chance to step away from just being players and actually give back. I really enjoy working with the kids, seeing their progress and just watching them smile."
Each week, the coordinators discuss the skills that need to be worked on with the kids. "Usually every week we'll focus on one main skill," explained Shinaberry. "We try to focus on something we notice them struggling with the week prior, but every week we do the same progression so they get the fundamentals down." During the program's existence, Moran and the coordinators have discovered that having fun sayings helps the children to remember their stances and forms for certain skill sets.
4:25 Participants begin to warm up by throwing with a mentor while the softball players walk around to direct the students on developing correct form.
Play Ball runs every Monday of the spring semester from 4:30-5:30 at the Memorial Hall facilities with participants who are anywhere from 10-15 years old; most of whom are physically full-functioning. To begin the afternoon, the participants warm up throwing with a partner or mentor and then split into three different groups to work on outfield skills, infield strategies and hitting abilities. The softball players direct the children and help adjust their form while playing. "In the outfield, they work on catching fly balls, for infield they work on grounding and footwork and hitting, they'll go inside the cages and do tee work," explained Shinaberry.
The student participants are generally excited to be at Play Ball, but at times find it difficult to complete some of the activities. When this happens, Moran steps in. "He's a great example to the kids because they'll say, "I can't run to first" and he says, "Yes, you can," drops his cane and takes off running. He's nonstop, program to program every day. He'll pick the kids up himself if he has to in order to make sure that the kids can come," said Shinaberry.
4:40 The participants begin their first rotation of the day in the outfield, infield of batting cages.
Approximately every 10 minutes, the groups are rotated through each of the three station and finish the afternoon by playing in a scrimmage game against other participants, along with the softball players and mentors.
Sophomore outfielder Anna Klumpp has been involved with Play Ball for the past two years and is pursuing a career in Special Education. "Some of the kids you really have to work with to try to get them to interact and have fun but others jump right in and they all want to be there," Klumpp explained. "They bring a certain happiness and excitement with them that rubs off on you and makes it fun to work with them."
This year, Moran has encouraged the mentors and workers to document the progress of the participants because primarily, they want to have the opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of the children. Additionally, in order to maintain funding for Overcoming Barriers and the Play Ball program, Moran must have record of weekly occurrences for tangible representation of the program's benefits.
"We got a grant to run this as a two-year program and unfortunately, this is the end of that two-year wave and they've decided not to renew that because one of the things was we didn't do a good enough job tracking progress and improvement," explained Moran. "That's something that we're really working on now as we continue to apply for new grants to keep it going." Moran is currently seeking grants to fund the continuation of Play Ball, but is encouraged by the connections maintained with the softball and baseball programs, which provide the use of the Memorial Hall facilities.
4:50 The first rotation occurs and the students switch to a different location for the next 10 minutes.
Some of the students find it difficult at times to adjust to the program schedule and activities. Most of the parents are in attendance each week and sit on the bleachers in the gym to observe during the program. "Many of them are helpful in that if they're a distraction, they'll separate themselves and if the child is having a hard time, we'll let them go talk to their mom and calm down if they need to," said Shinaberry. For many of the children who participate, their siblings come to the program as well and are encouraged to join in the activities.
At times, the students have habits of handing their equipment to their parents, but the coordinators and mentors work with the students to break them of these habits and develop independence. The program enhances an interactive environment where the coordinators walk around to interact with participants, mentors and parents. The softball coaches and Moran also mingle and assist the participants with development of skills and improvement in tasks.
The children are recruited for participation in Play Ball through various connections in the Harrisonburg community. "We have very strong connections in the schools, so I sent it out to all the special education teachers, occupational therapists and physical therapists," explained Moran. "As the program has continued to grow, we're made more and more connections and ultimately, our best connection is parents talking to other parents and discussing the improvement they've seen in their children."
5:00 The last rotation occurs and students spend time at the station they have not yet worked at.
The softball players and coaches collaborate to instruct the participants on developing their fundamental softball skills. When the coaches come to the program and walk around to build relationships through talking to the kids and parents, the softball players are encouraged. "They respect the program as much as we do and that's something that's really important to me specifically, knowing that even with the stress of season, our coaches are really supportive and I know the parents are really appreciative," said Shinaberry.
In addition to Coach Flynn and Coach Norton, the softball coaches, every member of the softball team has been involved with Play Ball at least once. Each semester, there are some players who have a more open schedule and are able to commit to participating each week, while others can only come once or twice during the semester. On any given Monday, there are usually between five and eight softball players in attendance at Play Ball, sharing their expertise in different skills areas.
"Every single person on our team has helped and I can't ask for anything else," added Shinaberry.
5:10 The participants come together with the volunteers, mentors and players to scrimmage against each other
As the participants continue playing during the day and improving their skills, the JMU students are impacted by the visible improvements. "The most rewarding part is knowing that I am making a difference in their life, and being able to see the kids have an "a-ha moment" and seeing the smile on their face," explained Harms. "I want to help them accomplish things that others say they cannot do and prove them wrong."
Shinaberry recalled a few instances when the participants had made negative comments early in the afternoon about their inability to participate in the activities but later get up to bat and hit the ball as far as they can. "We've never taught them how to steal bases and all of a sudden, you're pitching and let go of the ball and he's stolen second base," she explained. "It's like, 'Where did you learn that? We haven't even gotten there yet!' And they stand up and say, 'I got you! I got you!' They're very competitive, which is always great."
5:30 The participants leave for the day and the students and staff involved in the program clean up.
"It's funny because after each session/practice the parents always thank us, but I don't think they realize how much we appreciate them just bringing their kids and investing their time," said Butler. "Play Ball is program I hope more of our players and other students get involved in."
The interactive atmosphere with the parents and families has allowed the parents to be responsive and share their opinions with Moran. "They're very, very appreciate and after session, they say, 'Thank you for having us' and I immediately want to say, 'Thank you for letting them come,' because it is just as rewarding for us as it is for them to watch their kids," commented Shinaberry.