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Buddyball helps special needs kids play sports

APOLLO BEACH – Sometimes all folks need is a helping hand – especially when they’re special needs kids. And that can be especially true when it comes to playing sports.

But a local nonprofit group formed in 2013 helps boys and girls with special needs participate in recreational baseball, flag football or cheerleading by pairing them with volunteer “buddies” who assists their play, as needed, and helps them experience what it’s like to be part of a team.

“Our motto is ‘Creating special athletes one game at a time,’” said Tina Pipher, Buddyball.org co-founder. “And our goal is to have at least one buddy per child to help them play the game.”

What’s now known as the Buddyball League began as the Challenger Division of the East Bay Little League, which plays at Vance Vogel Park in Gibsonton. Special needs kids ages 5 to 18 or up to age 22 if they are still enrolled in high school are eligible to play.

Buddyball is noncompetitive. There are no practices, only 90-minute “games” that give players the opportunity to hit and run in baseball or run and score in flag football. Players build skills, gain self-confidence and form friendships, Pipher said.

“It’s rewarding to see the joy in their faces as they experience the thrill of playing,” she continued. “You can’t imagine how much some of the kids improve.”

Mary Stenbeck, Buddyball’s social media director, agrees.

“My daughter Megan (who has autism) was 17 when she started playing,” she said. “She gave us a lot of trouble at first and didn’t want to go on the field. Now she’s all over it and I can’t get her off.”

Pipher and co-founder Colette Stibich – who in August is opening Impact Academy in Seffner, a school for special needs children – are always looking for volunteer “buddies.” The league started out with about 25 players and had 76 playing on six teams last spring for baseball.

“The buddies get as much or more out of participating,” said Pipher, an occupational therapist at All Children’s Outpatient Care Center in Brandon. “They can be as young as a mature age 10 or adults, including seniors, as long as they can chase the kids around.”

And high school students can earn community service hours, she added.

The organization also raises funds to sponsor free or discounted field trips for the players and their families to visit places like the Florida Aquarium and Legoland; attend a Bucs game; or go horseback riding.

“I think every child, even those with disabilities, should have the opportunity to participate in a team sport,” said Buddyball.org board member Leilani Warbritton, mother of three. “It’s an important part of any child’s experience.”

For additional information, visit www.buddyball.org.

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(813) 731-8138

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