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South Tampa News

Buddy Baseball gives special needs kids a sport

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: April 2, 2013 at 12:50 PM
TEMPLE TERRACE -

The softball field adjacent to Lewis Elementary School is a happy place each Saturday during the spring and fall Buddy Baseball season.

“If you come here angry about something you’ll just start smiling,” said Katie Whyte, 15, of Odessa who just completed her fourth season as a Buddy Baseball buddy.

The program that just wrapped up its eighth season is a noncompetitive, camaraderie-building recreational league for special-needs boys and girls from throughout the greater Tampa Bay area. Players are paired with volunteer buddies to assist them as needed.

Temple Terrace resident Russ Oberbroeckling, its founder and commissioner, said it has been heartwarming to watch the program grow and witness its wide range appeal to kids and parents alike.

This year’s spring season attracted 80 players and 90 buddies that resulted in 14 teams. Some 40 coaches also volunteered.

Katie’s dad, Ron Whyte, whose autistic son Reilly, 17, is a player, has coached the teen’s team for four seasons.

“I think Buddy Baseball has improved his self-esteem and is a sport he’s really good at,” Ron Whyte said. “I like that the games are always a tie and that no one is yelling at anyone else if someone drops the ball.”

Ron Whyte’s wife, Kris, said it’s a great program for everyone involved.

“It’s especially nice that all the people are so positive toward each other. It’s a bit of a drive for us, but it’s worth it,” she said. “The high schools in the area have nothing like this for special-needs kids.”

Greg and Joyce Garrett travel from Longwood, just north of Orlando, so their 17-year-old son, Andrew, who has autism and intellectual disabilities, can participate.

“He just loves it,” said Greg Garrett. “He doesn’t like to go places but he likes coming here.”

Joyce Garrett said as parents, they also enjoy seeing and chatting with other parents with whom they’ve built friendships throughout the eight seasons their son has played.

Even their daughter, Lizzie, 13, accompanies them because she reaps her own rewards as a buddy.

Temple Terrace resident Chris Valenzuela, 20, who also is autistic, came on board as a player on day one of the first season in 2009. His mother, Julie Ford, is delighted he’s stuck with it.

“It’s been a real good opportunity for him to be involved in sports, but even more importantly, he’s really benefitted from the social component of the program,” she said.

This season, for the first time, in Buddy Baseball awarded a sponsors-funded $500 buddy scholarship to Delaney Stano, 18, a senior at Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Tampa. A member of the National Honor Society with a grade point average of 5.1, he plans to attend Florida College where he’ll study to be a teacher.

“This experience will help me in the future with relating to other people and understanding people’s situations,” Stano said.

Chris Holbrook of Town ’N Country, Buddy Baseball’s co-commissioner and head coach, commends league leader Oberbroeckling, whom he said, along with his wife, Deanna, and two disability-free daughters, has devoted himself to the program.

And while Ron Whyte gave kudos to all the members of the organization’s board of directors, he said Oberbroeckling is in a league all his own.

“He’s just incredibly hardworking and he’s completely dedicated to these children,” he said.

Oberbroeckling, however, is not one for gloating about his role in building a program that now draws participants from several countries outside the boundaries of Hillsborough County.

“It’s not just me. Look at all the help I’ve got,” he said.

For more information, visit www.buddybaseball.org

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