The childhood fantasy of playing baseball at Yankee Stadium, improbable even for kids who excel at the game, is an impossible dream for children with disabilities. But last August, thanks to a heads-up play from a Warwick-based adaptive sports organization called Beautiful People — and with a big assist from the Bronx Bombers — that’s just what happened.
After watching the Yankees throttle the visiting Detroit Tigers, 18 children — all veterans of Beautiful People’s baseball program — took the field on what turned out to be, weather-wise, one of the summer’s nicest afternoons. Each child was paired with a big-league “buddy” in pinstripes for the game. Among the participating Yankees players were Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Javier Vazquez, A.J. Burnett, Lance Berkman, and the day’s winning pitcher, Phil Hughes. Afterwards, the children and their families — along with their new Yankees buddies — feasted at an on-field barbecue catered by the Hard Rock Café, Dylan’s Candy Bar, and Turkey Hill Dairy.
Founded in 2007 by Warwick’s Peter Ladka — owner of the software company Parse3 and father of two healthy children — Beautiful People provides sports opportunities for kids ages five to 18 who live in and around Orange County. An affiliate of the nationwide nonprofit Miracle League, Beautiful People offers the chance to play baseball and soccer to children suffering from cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida, autism, and other disabling developmental and physical conditions.
A beautiful day: Catcher Jorge Posada and Hannah Santoru (left) have some fun on the grass at Yankee Stadium; at right, pitcher Boone Logan and Rusty Wilkins run the bases during the Yankees/Beautiful People baseball game
“The idea came to me in 2005,” Ladka recalls. “I was playing T-ball with my daughter Brooke, and thinking about how I could do something in the community. I thought, ‘How cool would it be for kids who have a difficulty or a disability and can’t be in a standard organized league to be able to play?’ I wanted to get a bunch of kids together and see how that went.”
The result was a home run.
“Every kid deserves to be able to play sports — particularly team sports,” says Jan Brunkhorst, the executive director of Beautiful People. “Children with disabilities are not always welcomed in those circles, or have the ability to do so.” And they should be.
“Playing team sports is recreational, but it’s also therapeutic,” she continues. “It brings out the kids’ confidence and self-esteem. They inspire each other. Parents tell us they see a change in their child’s attitude.”
Besides the baseball and soccer leagues it currently sponsors, Beautiful People hopes to soon include football, hockey, and track and field as well. The organization is in the midst of a fund-raising drive to construct a rubberized field which would accommodate these other sports. They are also seeking volunteers to partner with the kids during games. (Visit www.beautiful-people.us for more information on volunteering, or to make a tax-deductible donation.)
The organization’s visit to Yankee Stadium was part of the 27-time world champion team’s 2010 HOPE (“Helping Others Persevere and Excel”) Week. Now in its second year, this initiative draws attention to five local individuals (or organizations) whose stories are inspirational and worthy of broader recognition. For Beautiful People, the event was, by any measure, a smashing success.
“All of us are still awestruck and walking on air,” Brunkhorst says. “It is hard to put into words what an amazing experience it was, start to finish. Unforgettable memories were made as each new layer of Yankees hospitality unfolded. The postgame innings that our Beautiful kids played, one-on-one with a ‘buddy’ Yankees player, were impactful and joyful for each and every one on that field.”
Those who are involved in the organization are used to being amazed.
“What makes these games so beautiful is that no one takes anything for granted,” Ladka says. “For everybody involved, each swing is an answered prayer.”