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Buddy Baseball Scores For Challenged Children, Parents

The program attracts participants from throughout the greater Tampa Bay area.

“Play ball!”

Those are the words frequently articulated by Russ Oberbroeckling when he speaks about a program that’s near and dear to his heart.

In fact, his signature command is what drew some 77 players and about 80 of their buddies to the Temple Terrace Family Recreation Complex’s softball fields behind Lewis Elementary School on Feb. 18.

It was the third of seven weeks of play in the sixth season of Buddy Baseball, a non-competitive recreational softball league for Tampa Bay area boys and girls with special needs.

The program, which offers both fall and spring sessions and began in 2009 with 36 players and 38 buddies, is Oberbroeckling’s brainchild.

It’s patterned after a successful league his sister, Sheri White, started in Rockford, Ill., in which players are paired with “buddies” to assist them.

In its three years of existence, the program has attracted physically and/or mentally challenged boys and girls from 73 different schools and also drawn about 30 volunteer coaches.

“I’m just happy that the word is getting around,” said Oberbroeckling, a Temple Terrace resident whose volunteer leadership role with the group has earned him the title of “Commissioner.”

Lutz resident Joann Davis has enrolled her autistic son, Cory Davis, 18, in Buddy Baseball every season since its inception.

She noted it used to take two buddies to work with him, but now it only takes one to meet his needs.

“He had never played sports, but now when he sees a ball, he will pick it up and throw it, something he never did before,” she said.

Odessa resident Hallden Parrish, 17, who also suffers from autism, is a first-time participant in the program.

“It’s helped him in his socializing,” said his mother, Mary Parrish. “He’s better with people and calmer with people.”

Hallden’s softball buddy, Amy Cunningham, 13, said she enjoys helping him in whatever way she can.

“Hallden is very nice and this experience makes me feel more grateful,” said the Temple Terrace resident who attends Terrace Community Middle School.

Michelle Vaughan and her husband, Wayne, travel from Land O’ Lakes every Saturday to serve as coaches. In addition, all three of their children—Sammy, 15, Malie, 13, and Benjamin, 11—are buddies.

“Sammy is a typical teenager and this is the one time he isn’t really selfish,” she said. “He feels a strong commitment to these kids.”

And there’s no question that Benjamin sees a purpose in being there.

“I like it because people with disabilities are able to play the game,” he said.

Kenny Eastman of Plant City said he is delighted to volunteer his time as an umpire for a second season.

“Just seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces is very rewarding,” he said.

William and Nadine Skelton of Temple Terrace have followed the progress of their 20-year-old son, James, since day one of the program.

Born with cerebral palsy, James’ limited mobility requires confining him to a wheelchair for most of his waking hours.

But that’s not the norm these days when he’s on the ball fields. On Feb. 18, with the aid of his buddy, Sammy and Sammy’s sister, Malie, James strolled contentedly in circles around the outfield numerous times.

“He loves being with kids, and this is the only exercise he gets,” said his mother.

For more information about the program, visit www.buddybaseball.org or call 813-416-5742.

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