The Great Bambinos

Young baseball players in blue jerseys and caps sat on the aluminum stands in the Saturday morning sun at Lincoln Woods Park in Florence. After a huddle in the infield that ended with the collective shout of “Team!” the players had just walked off the field of the season’s final game.

Parents, relatives and friends clapped and cheered as Coach Greg Ashcraft stood before the stands and called each player by name. Ashcraft tried to say a bit about the players, maybe how long they’d been in the league or how much they’d improved, as he presented trophies to celebrate a season well-played. Cameras snapped and players beamed as they shared their trophies with their fans.

The scene seemed familiar enough for this time of year. But each player on this team has special needs that might prevent him or her from playing on a traditional baseball team. So they came to play here — Bambino Buddy-Ball.

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The faces. When I think of the Bambinos, I think of faces full of joy. Bright eyes and big smiles when players catch a ball or connect for a solid hit. I think of faces strong with determination. The intent and focus when players dart for first, kick up dirt as they round the bases, and bound onto home plate to punctuate their score.

This spring marked the fourth season in our area for Bambino Buddy-Ball, a division of Northern Kentucky Baseball. It was the fourth season to experience the excitement of America’s pastime and to learn what it means to belong to a team. The fourth season to play the game with joyful determination.

My daughter has played Buddy-Ball for two seasons, so I’ve watched a game or two. The faces of fellow fans are something to see too – full of excitement, pride and hope. All these great expressions on all these faces caused me to wonder about the league. What’s its past? What’s its future?

To find out, I talked with Ashcraft. One of the lucky people who turned his love of sports into his vocation, Ashcraft makes his living training and coaching youth athletes in the area. For NKB, Ashcraft is a utility player. He plays administrator, sitting on the organization’s board of directors and overseeing the Bambinos. He plays coach, guiding Bambino players during Saturday morning games. And he plays baseball dad, cheering on daughter Grace, one of the Bambinos.

Bambino Buddy-Ball gets its name from one of the many nicknames of legendary baseball player George Herman “Babe” Ruth. It was established in 2000 by the national Babe Ruth League, with which NKB is affiliated. The young Northern Kentucky division has been in a building phase. Word is spreading, the division is growing, and this season, Ashcraft said, 55 players wore the Bambino patch on their uniform.

Pawsat Pro Photo
Team photo by Pawsat Pro Photo.

It takes a community

Marketing is a key to growing the Buddy-Ball division, said Ashcraft, who came on board two years ago. Through his involvement in the community, Ashcraft spreads the word about the Bambinos in an effort to reach new players and find corporate support and sponsors. A Step Ahead Pediatric Therapy sponsors the Bambinos, helping NKB to offer Buddy-Ball at no cost to its players.

Ashcraft relies on a lot of people for help. “I couldn’t do it without volunteers,” he said.

Other NKB teams come out to the Bambino fields each week to help as buddies and coaches.  The volunteers signed up with enthusiasm this season, Ashcraft said, noting that when he sent out a volunteer list with open spots, it got filled immediately. Each Saturday, 20 to 24 volunteers were needed.

A Saturday morning during the Buddy-Ball season is a family affair for the Ashcrafts. Along with Greg and 12-year-old Grace, daughter Hayley, 20, and son Grant, 10, put on their blue shirts and head out to the field. Hayley coaches the younger Bambinos with her dad, and Grant helps as a buddy. Wife Kym watches from the stands.

Baseball binds the family together, Hayley said. “We’re all going to be there, no matter what.”

For the Bambinos, “having fun is all that really matters.”

Hayley told me she’s worked a lot with children with special needs throughout her life, including volunteering with Special Olympics swimming. That work seemed a good fit for the former high school swimmer, but because she wasn’t a baseball player, she wasn’t so sure about coaching when she started last year. “My dad just kind of roped me into it,” she said.

She found herself at ease soon enough. She saw the energy the players had and how excited they were. “It changed my life,” she said. For the Bambinos, “having fun is all that really matters.”

Looking to the future, one particular challenge for the program is limited facilities. The Bambinos play on dirt fields, which can be uneven and difficult for players with walkers and wheelchairs or other mobility issues. There are other leagues for ballplayers with special needs, such as the Miracle League in Cincinnati, that play on synthetic turf. Ashcraft would like to see those kinds of fields on this side of the river for the growing special needs population in Northern Kentucky.

Along those lines, Ashcraft continues to appeal to the community and corporations for support.  “We want to continue to make it grow,” he said. “We can make it successful here.”

 A love of the game

It may be an odd question when we live in the Cincinnati Reds backyard, but I asked anyway: Why baseball?

“They feel like they’re a part of something,” Ashcraft said of the players. “The experience to get out on a field … and just have that moment to be in the limelight.” It’s an amazing experience, he said, and he hopes the players learn, that even more than winning, “it’s about going out there loving the game.”

In Bambino Buddy-Ball, everyone hits, everyone fields, no one sits out and no one gets out. The players might warm up and work on skills before being divided into teams to take turns at bat and in the field. This season the division played on two fields – one for younger players who hit off a tee, and one for older players hitting machine pitches and off a tee.

Bambinos range in age from 4 to 18, though exceptions may be made, and they are placed on teams according to their age and skills. Buddies help according to need. Some players want a buddy next to them at all times, even running the bases with them. Other players are more independent, but generally everyone gets paired with a buddy in the field. If parents aren’t sure which team is best for their children, Ashcraft evaluates their skills and places them where they will grow as players and have fun.

My daughter certainly enjoys being a Bambino. Anna, 17, said she feels proud and excited to play baseball, especially because she’s following in the footsteps of an older brother. “We get to catch and stuff and we bat,” she told me the morning of the season’s last game after I asked to interview her. “When I bat I have to try to hit it hard and quickly. Sometimes I miss and sometimes I don’t miss and I run to the bases when I hit.”

She also likes being on the field with the volunteers. “There was the Red Dragons that helped us,” she said. “I have a couple of people that are boys that run with me.”

high fives
Bambinos line up to shake hands with their buddies after Saturday’s game. Photo by Susan Cline Photography.

Missie and Don Lunnemann appreciate the interaction with peers that their 12-year-old gets while playing Buddy-Ball. “Jake loves working with the other kids,” Missie said as she stood with her husband near the field before the game. The buddies benefit from the experience too, she said, because they get to know the players, see their abilities and talk baseball with them.

Jake has become more social over the past couple of years, Missie said, and Buddy-Ball has helped. Don agreed, adding, “Experiencing a typical athletic sport is very good for him as well.” The couple also praised Ashcraft. “I appreciate Greg’s dedication,” Don said.

Ashcraft champions baseball’s ability to instill confidence and increase independence. He works hard, he said, to encourage independence among the players and their parents. For some parents, this is the first time to turn their child over to someone else, to sit back and watch. For the players, baseball creates memories of accomplishment that they can rely on to bolster confidence in other areas of their lives, he said.

Ashcraft’s most memorable moments on the field swirl around the expressions on the players’ faces and the heart that they bring to the game. He takes joy in their joy when they hold and swing a bat by themselves, when they experience the success of hitting the ball. He enjoys watching them in the field, even when they’re playing in the dirt.

For all of us who love children, it’s an amazing privilege to watch a child grow. Ashcraft said he’s rewarded with that each week during baseball season. And then there’s the impact on the parents. Parents have told him, “I never knew my child could do that.” These are the home-run moments of the job.

*

As Saturday’s trophy presentation came to a close, Ashcraft encouraged the players to keep practicing and working hard. He told them to invite others they meet to come out to play with them in the spring. The players climbed down from the stands and prepared to leave the ballpark. No one seemed concerned about wins and losses, outs or hits. They just seemed happy to have had a chance to put on a uniform and play baseball.

Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming up to bat.” As for the players leaving the field on Saturday, they are all great Bambinos.

 

Find out more

Go to Northern Kentucky Baseball at nkbaseball.com for more information on its Bambino Buddy-Ball division or contact Greg Ashcraft at gashcraft86@gmail.com.

 

Credit: Top photo by Susan Cline Photography.

Theater invites guests to ‘feel free to be you’

AMC logo

When Max and Duke romp onto the big screen in The Secret Life of Pets this weekend, a Northern Kentucky movie theater will turn the lights up and the sound down so some special patrons can watch the dogs’ animated antics in comfort.

The accommodations are part of Sensory Friendly Films at AMC Newport on the Levee 20. The film series, offered by AMC Theatres in partnership with the Autism Society, invites guests with autism and other special needs to “feel free to be you.”

The screenings offer a more relaxed atmosphere for moviegoers, said Kevin Coffman, a supervisor at the Levee theater. If viewers like to get up, walk around or make noises, that’s all OK. The audience is more understanding, he said. Guests also are welcome to bring their own snacks.

The theater shows Sensory Friendly Films on the second and fourth Saturday and Tuesday of each month. The Saturday shows begin at 10 a.m. – that’s when you can catch The Secret Life of Pets this weekend.

The Tuesday shows begin at 7 p.m. and were added last summer for guests looking for more mature films, said Ryan Noonan, AMC’s director of corporate communications. Originally focused on families and children, the film series expanded to meet more needs, Noonan said. “We’ve seen kids grow up now.”

The movies for each month are selected by AMC’s film department according to demographics and popularity. Almost half of AMC’s theaters offer Sensory Friendly Films, Noonan said. A check of their website showed 175 participating theaters. The Newport on the Levee location was the only one listed in the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati area.

Coffman, the local theater supervisor, said moviegoers at the Levee have told him they appreciate the opportunity to view films in the modified environment. Crowds vary depending on the movie, he said. An average crowd may be 20 to 30 people, while a long-awaited movie like Finding Dory might attract as many as 50 to 100, he said.

Saturday morning movies cost $5.61. Tuesday evening tickets sell for $11.12.  Guests can get their Levee parking tickets validated at a booth near the movie ticket office so that they pay $1.25 to park.

Backstory

In 2007, a Maryland mother asked her local AMC Theatres manager to arrange a special screening for children on the autism spectrum after she’d had a bad experience with her young daughter at another movie theater. The manager agreed, the mother talked it up, and so many people showed up for the movie that the auditorium couldn’t hold them all, according to autism-society.org.

The manager added more movies and contacted AMC headquarters with the idea. The Autism Society partnered with AMC, and the film series grew to include theaters across the country. You can read more about it on the Autism Society’s website here.

Summer lineup of Sensory Friendly Films

  • Saturday, July 9: The Secret Life of Pets
  • Tuesday, July 12: BFG
  • Saturday, July 23: Ice Age: Collision Course
  • Tuesday, July 26:  Ghostbusters
  • Tuesday, August 9: Suicide Squad
  • Saturday, August 13 and 27: Pete’s Dragon
  • Tuesday, August 23: War Dogs

Check the AMC Theatres website for current Sensory Friendly Films here.

Have you attended a Sensory Friendly Film? Would you like to share your experience? If so, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Governor’s Scholars host dance

UPDATE: THE DANCE HAS BEEN CANCELED DUE TO LACK OF RESPONSE.

If your idea of a good night is music, dancing, food and friends, mark July 23 on your calendar. That’s the night people with special needs will be treated to a summer dance at Northern Kentucky University hosted by students in the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program.

Special guests’ families, friends and partners also are invited to the dance, which will run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the auxiliary gym of the Campus Recreation Center.

GSP Healthcare class
Governor’s scholars in Teresa Hoffmann’s healthcare class participate in an activity symbolizing that everyone is connected as a community. The class will host a dance for people with special needs on July 23.

The dance will bring people of differing abilities together to celebrate community, said organizer Teresa Hoffmann, a faculty member in the Governor’s Scholars Program. “They are all participants in just a joyful evening.”

Hoffmann’s healthcare class of 20 students will be “elegant hosts,” she said. The students will show guests to tables, provide light refreshments of water and fruit, invite guests to dance and serve any other needs they may have. Other faculty members and resident assistants also will be on hand to help.

The dance isn’t a formal. No special attire is required. Hoffmann said she envisions a casual party where folks go to dance, listen to music or feel the music’s vibrations. She wants to offer an activity that includes people who may often feel isolated.

‘They are all participants in just a joyful evening.’

The Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program is a highly competitive five-week summer residential program for rising high school seniors in the state. Established in 1983, the program aims to “enhance Kentucky’s next generation of civic and economic leaders,” according to its website. Colleges compete to host the scholars for three-year cycles. NKU, Morehead State University and Murray State University were selected as hosts for 2016 to 2018. This summer, 354 of the scholars are studying at NKU, Hoffmann said.

The program’s curriculum often includes service learning. Along those lines, Hoffmann’s healthcare students volunteer at the Given Campus of Stepping Stones near Cincinnati. The non-profit organization provides programs for children and adults with disabilities. It works to “increase independence, improve lives and promote inclusion,” according to its mission statement.

Through their volunteer work, Hoffmann’s students are learning to interact and communicate with people in different ways. They are learning patience, she said, and compassion. Her students have told her that their work at Stepping Stones is humbling because they are meeting people who live with extraordinary difficulties yet have happy, positive attitudes.

The dance will celebrate the relationships and connections formed at Stepping Stones and include the larger community in the fun, said Hoffmann, who organized similar dances in Louisville while working with the Governor’s Scholars Program in the past.

If you would like to attend, please call the NKU Governor’s Scholars Program office at 859-448-8820 by July 20 with the number in your party. Minors must be accompanied by an adult.

 You’re invited …

Event: a summer dance for people with special needs and their families, friends and partners

Date: July 23

Time: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Place: Northern Kentucky University, auxiliary gym in the Campus Recreation Center

Cost: free

Parking: free in the Kenton Drive Parking Garage

RSVP: by July 20 to 859-448-8820 with the number of people in your party. Minors must be accompanied by an adult.

For a campus map, click here.

Camp days full of fun, friends

Children and adults with disabilities will have the chance next month to make new friends and great memories at a summer camp right here in Northern Kentucky.

Individuals from middle-school age on up are invited to Capernaum Day Camp, which runs July 25-29 on the grounds of the beautiful Newman family farm in Union. In its fourth year, the camp boasts a schedule of activities as full as a summer day is long: field games, water games, fishing and horseback riding, tractor rides, crafts, speakers, a dance party at least once a day, and more. Much of the activity is set to music, lots and lots of music.

My daughter, Anna, has joined in the fun the past two years. So when I scheduled an interview with camp organizer Brian Kremer to find out what’s planned for this year, I took Anna along. We met last week in the lounge area of a local church, where Kremer’s face lit up as he talked about the event.

Camp allows Capernaum leaders to build a community that brings together people with and without disabilities “and really lavish God’s love on our friends in a big way,” Kremer said. “We try to go pull out all the stops and make it so much fun that [a camper] remembers everything about the camp a year later.”

Kremer is the area director of Northern Kentucky Capernaum, a nondenominational Christian ministry serving teens and young adults with disabilities. The group consists of college and high school students who gather with individuals with disabilities to create relationships and help them know Jesus’s love. They have a lot of fun along the way. Besides its summer day camp, Capernaum offers Bible studies; “club” nights with talks, skits, games and dancing; community outings; a summer overnight camp out of state; and a prom.

A camper’s questions

On the day of our interview with Kremer, Anna asked the first questions.  Each day at camp a speaker talks, and Anna wanted to know how long that talk would be. She also asked about the food and had lots of questions about activities.

Kremer told her someone will speak daily for 15 minutes about Jesus’s love and, this summer, the story of Lazarus. As for the food, Kremer said two women will cook a delicious lunch every day, serving meals such as tacos and chicken sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches also will be available daily.

Fishing – one of Anna’s favorite activities – will take place at the farm’s lake. Horses from Sunrise Ranch will be brought in for riding. In place of a scavenger hunt this year, campers will join in team-building exercises as part of the new Newman Farm Challenge. Inflatables will be set up as will equipment for basketball and cornhole.

Friday activities start at 6 p.m. with a banquet in the barn followed by a talent show.

The fun will begin at 9 a.m. on the first four days of camp. Families are welcome on the last day, Friday, when activities will start at 6 p.m. with a banquet in the barn. After dinner, campers will entertain the crowd with a talent show.

The entire activity list for the week is a bit long for this blog, but camper families can be assured: Capernaum knows how to play.

A parent’s questions

Next came my turn to ask questions. Kremer told me campers are welcome regardless of their faith. Each camper will have a one-on-one volunteer buddy to accompany him or her during all activities, he said, adding that each day follows a similar structure because many campers like routine.

banquet
Campers and their families gather in the barn for the Friday night banquet at last year’s Capernaum Day Camp.

To support the medical needs of the campers, Kremer has been trained to administer daily medications. Camp organizers also plan to have a certified health care worker on site every day in case of medical emergencies.

Kremer encourages campers to come even if they can’t attend every day of camp, even if 9 a.m. is a little too early. If someone wants to check camp out for an hour to see what it’s like before committing to the week, he said, that’s fine too.

Offering a day camp is a way for Capernaum to be a blessing to Northern Kentucky, Kremer said. It also enhances the group’s ministry. “We want to create a bigger community around our friends,” he said.

Things to know

Dates and times: July 25 to 28, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with registration starting at 8:30 a.m., and July 29, 6 p.m. banquet followed by a talent show

Ages: middle school to adult

Place: 2231 Clarkston Lane, Union, Ky.

Cost: $125

Register: Campers and volunteers can register at nkycapernaum.younglife.org, or the Northern Kentucky Capernaum Facebook page. You can also contact Brian Kremer at 859-394-2744 to register by phone or with questions.

Schedule for Monday through Thursday (give or take 15 minutes here and there):

  • 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. – Check-in.
  • 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. – Free time with activities around the barn and farmhouse.
  • 10 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. – Faith talk, songs and games.
  • 11:15 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Crafts related to the day’s theme.
  • 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. – Lunch.
  • 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. – Group activities around the farm such as horseback riding and fishing.
  • 2:30 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. – All-camp activity.
  • 3:45 p.m. – Reminder of the theme for the day.
  • 4 p.m. – Check-out and pick up.

 

Finding friends along the road

In 1985, the summer after my sophomore year in college, I plotted the 550-plus-mile drive from Louisville, Kentucky, to a newspaper internship in Richmond, Virginia, on a large paper road map. I folded and refolded that map as I worked my way across three states in my cream-colored, two-door Chevette hatchback. Stuffed with clothes and belongings, the car had a manual shift, black interior and no air-conditioning.

blog illustration vertical

That was my first solo road trip. Those were the days before cell phones and satellite radio. Then the only thing to help a lonely traveler feel connected was spotty, shifting AM/FM radio reception. Or so I thought. But as I traveled along the interstate, through mountains, across rivers, I noticed something: I made friends on the road. Literally, on the road.

At least that’s how I would characterize what happened. I noticed that sometimes I found myself behind a car or truck on the interstate going about the same speed and so we traveled together awhile, like a driver following a pace car. Or sometimes a car stayed behind me for a time, a familiar presence in my rear view mirror that provided a sense of stability amid the ever-changing scenes outside my window. For a time, we shared the journey.

Many years and road trips later, I find myself on a different journey. I’m a parent of a child with special needs. Caring for my daughter’s mind, body and spirit; finding resources and opportunities to help her live her best life — these are the roads I travel now. I wonder which turns to make. I look for signs to follow. I encounter mountains to climb and rivers I see no way to cross.

I wish I had a map. Even better, a navigation system. With voice control. “In approximately one minute, you will choose this doctor.” Boom. Done. Maybe even voice control with attitude. That would be handy for those days I need an extra kick in the pants. “In approximately five seconds — heck, you should have started a week ago! — you will get your rear in gear and start filling out those forms for (insert: office/service provider of your choice)!”

Despite my lack of a map, I continue on the road. And just as I did on my trip to Virginia, I find friends along the way. Doctors and nurses, therapists and educators, coaches and instructors. Along with family and long-time friends, these people provide immeasurable and vital help and support. They keep my daughter alive. They keep me alive. They build bridges, point us in the right direction, fuel us when I’m not sure we can go any farther.

Still, the road did get lonely early on. To the rescue came a cheer team for people with special needs. My daughter joined, and for the first time in our lives we regularly gathered with families who understood firsthand the challenges we faced, families who spoke the same language and held in their hearts the same joys and concerns. We talked and laughed and complained together. We learned from each other. We shared the journey.

      I want this blog to be a place where readers can come to learn and to share ideas. I hope this space helps to create a greater sense of community.

That newspaper internship in Virginia? It worked out well. I worked as a journalist during college and after graduation, and those experiences contributed to the idea for this blog. I want to make these pages a newspaper of sorts with articles about the Northern Kentucky people, events, organizations and resources working to improve the lives of people with special needs and their families. I want this blog to be a place where readers can come to learn and to share ideas. I hope this space helps to create a greater sense of community.

I expect that working on this blog will help me too. While I’ve lived in Northern Kentucky for almost twenty years, I hope blogging will help me feel more connected. I expect I’ll learn a lot and meet a lot of people. And I expect also that this work will cause me to look with fresh eyes at my daughter, to notice anew her strengths and abilities and the qualities that make her unique.

I’m eager to start. Thank you for the opportunity. Thank you for traveling the road with me.