Challenger baseball hits home run for special needs kids
Inspired by his son, a Wells Fargo team member takes Challenger baseball to youngsters with disabilities in the Pacific Northwest.
Four years after his death from a seizure, Alex Vaandering lives on in the cracks of bats, pops of balls in leather, and the smiles at Challenger baseball games.
His dad, Dan, is paying forward the joy he saw baseball bring Alex by giving even more baseball players with special needs the chance to play in the Pacific Northwest.
A collections supervisor for Wells Fargo in Beaverton, Oregon, Dan runs the District 4 Challenger Baseball League for Little League International in Aloha, Oregon. That includes the Red Sox team that Carter Cermak, 12, plays on.
“Baseball isn’t just America’s pastime but my family’s pastime,” says Carter’s mom, Molly. “Carter’s my only child, and one of my brothers was a standout player in high school. He’s right there with us cheering for Carter at every game. In our family, that’s what you do in the summertime: You play baseball, and you watch baseball.
“In Challenger League baseball, everyone gets to play. Playing the game, loving the game, and being able to participate is super important to us. Challenger baseball gives us that opportunity.”
Dan’s experience with Challenger League baseball began the day Alex, then age 7, brought home a flier about the program in 2006, and said he wanted to play.
Soon, the whole family was involved: Dan as coach, mother Wendi serving as “team mom,” and Alex’s older brother, Taylor, bringing friends to serve as buddies for the team.
It was Dan who introduced the Buddy program, long a fixture of other Challenger Leagues, when he became president of District 4 in 2008. Buddies help the players bat, navigate the bases, and cover the positions on the field so parents can focus on watching their children play.
Since then, Dan has added two other experiences for the players: a Jamboree weekend of baseball, barbecue, games, and prizes in May at Alpenrose Dairy in Portland for teams from Oregon and Washington; and an exhibition game in August during the Little League Softball World Series.
During the 2013 Little League World Series, Little League International put Dan on the mound in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to throw out the first pitch at the Challenger exhibition game. He also greeted the crowd before the semifinal of the American Championship game after receiving national Little League honors for his work in Oregon.
“Dan’s dedication to the Little League Challenger Division is an inspiration,” says Stephen Keener, president and CEO of Little League International.
The 2014 Challenger League season is over, but Dan already is gearing up for 2015, including adding a new Adult Division. What keeps him going? A supportive company that encourages his volunteerism, he says, Alex’s legacy, the sight of Little League buddies becoming regulars at Challenger League games, and memories like one from the very first Jamboree:
He and Wendi, who also works at Wells Fargo, had personally funded the event and could only afford one giveaway for each team. When Dan called out a winning number, he heard a loud scream from the third base dugout.
Out ran a little girl to collect her prize: a new baseball glove, which brought her mom and coach to tears.
“Every game she had cried because she didn’t have a glove of her own and had to use someone else’s,” Dan says. “The next year, she wore that glove while playing at the Jamboree. Her mom told me that she took it everywhere with her as a trophy. She told people she had her very own baseball glove because she was a baseball player.
“One small act became a huge part of her life.”
Find the Challenger team nearest you or start a league at littleleague.org. For more information about Challenger baseball, see Little League’s Challenger Division page.