Whitehall News

Stars find home at Bishop Park

Camaraderie evident when special-needs baseball teams takes the field

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RYAN M.L. YOUNG/THISWEEKNEWS
Ashley Jervis, 14, of Whitehall smiles while crossing home plate during a Stars League baseball game Friday, July 18, at John Bishop Park. The park hosts games between two teams of young people with special needs every other Friday night in June and July.

As the first drops of rain begin to fall, Caleb Welday, 16, dons a batting helmet and grips his bat. He stands in the box, chokes up on his bat, and takes a mighty cut at the first pitch.

It's a hit.

It's a Friday night at John Bishop Park in Whitehall, and Caleb's team, the Stars -- a baseball team for young people with special needs -- is on the field.

This is the fourth year the Stars League has made its home in Whitehall. The league has two teams of special-needs children and young adults who play each other every Friday night in June and July.

The group used to play in Pickerington until local age limits were enforced, meaning some players over the age of 18 had to sit on the bench.

So coach Donna Smith took action. After making a plea to her brother-in-law, Eric Neale, who's commissioner of the Whitehall Youth Athletic Association, the teams moved to Whitehall, where everyone can play.

Smith has been coaching the Stars, along with Patrick Sharon, for four years and said she has loved every minute of it.

"When they're hitting that ball and running out there, it's the most amazing feeling I can get," she said. "When they're coming in from hitting the ball and I see that smile on their faces, that's all I need."

Smith has a daughter, Stevie, who plays on the team. She's 17 this week, and Smith said she is happy her daughter will be able to play baseball for many more summers to come.

Sharon, whose son is 23 and still playing, said moving to Whitehall has allowed his son to continue with the league.

"It's been a great time," he said. "The kids love it. I love seeing the faces of the kids. I do it for them."

But the players aren't the only ones enjoying the game.

Parents say it opens the door to relationships with other parents who are going through many of the same struggles -- and triumphs -- they are experiencing.

"We understand," said Jennifer Welday, Caleb's mother, who added she often dons a glove and gets out on the field. "We've all been there. There's definitely camaraderie and we can compare notes."

If one of the players has a meltdown on the field, she said, everyone is understanding and just waits it out, she said. They've all been there.

"Everyone is very patient and understanding," said Carla Brown, mom to Nathan, 13. "And this gives them the full experience as a team ... without the pressure of a regular sports league."

Denise Hinkle, whose daughter, Morgan, 16, is playing for her third year, said the relationships and connections fostered by the league are helpful.

"It gives parents the chance to see what their kids are doing while connecting with each other," she said.

For her daughter, the benefits, Hinkle said, have been immeasurable.

"Baseball is a more-active sport and they see it at their schools," said Hinkle, "and it's not just Whitehall families. Morgan is making friends from everywhere."

For others, it has been a growing experience.

Ashley Jervis, 14, didn't want to get out on the field at first. But with some coaxing from her mother, Chrystal Jervis, along with a little encouragement from Caleb, her teammate and classmate, Ashley tentatively stepped up to the batter's box. Now, she is all smiles.

Jacquee Van Almsick, whose son is 20, said many of the players wouldn't otherwise have a chance to be with a group of their peers in such an accepting environment.

"They don't have to worry about hang-ups here," she said as parents cheered on the team. "They can just be themselves."

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