Harford Miracle League raising funds to build baseball field for players with special needs

The Miracle League of Harford County is spearheading an initiative to give children and adults with disabilities a place where they can play baseball by this fall — that all depends, however, on the organization’s success in raising the needed funds, according to board president Tom Walls.

Walls, 64, of Forest Hill, has worked with other community organizations, such as the ARC Northern Chesapeake Region, for about 20 years. He said children with special needs enjoy sports, and they have the same desire to play as their able-bodied peers.

“They’ve never been able to get out and experience playing, so this will give them the chance to experience playing ball,” he said last week.

The Miracle League of Harford County is working to raise $800,000 to cover the estimated cost of building the field in Schucks Regional Park, just south of the intersection of Route 22 and Schucks Road and Harford Community College’s Bel Air campus.

The mission of the Conyers, Ga.-based Miracle League, founded in 2000, is to give people with special needs the opportunity to play baseball on fields designed to accommodate them and their wheelchairs or other support devices, according to the organization’s website.

There are more than 240 local organizations, serving more than 200,000 adults and children in the U.S. and Canada, according to the website.

“There’s really nothing like the Miracle League,” Walls said. “There’s nothing like the Miracle League fields anywhere.”

Community partnerships

Walls is working with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation to construct the Harford County field. The Baltimore-based foundation has overseen the construction of community baseball fields throughout the country, including Cal Sr.’s Yard at the Ripken Experience youth baseball complex and the Vi Ripken Field at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet Park, both in Aberdeen, according to the foundation website.

The Harford Miracle League is also working with the county to execute a memorandum of understanding allowing the league to use a section of the Schucks Road park for its field.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman talked about the partnership with the Miracle League in his Jan. 9 State of the County Address, along with prior county initiatives to provide recreational activities for people with disabilities.

Glassman said last week the MOU should be ready to sign in about two weeks. He said the Miracle League field is “a really neat concept,” as it can be used by children as well as adults who want to play softball.

“This seemed like a perfect fit,” Glassman said of the partnership, stating that “it fits into our program” to expand services to people with disabilities.

“It's one of those public-private partnerships that I like to do,” he said.

He said the county would not transfer park property to the organization.

“We’re not transferring anything, we’re just agreeing to let them use it,” Glassman said.

He said the MOU should include provisions allowing the Department of Parks and Recreation to use the field for its activities with children with special needs when the Miracle League is not using it.

Both organizations will have to work out scheduling, Glassman said.

“All citizens will have access to it,” he said.

Walls said the Miracle League will take care of facility maintenance. He said league representatives have also talked with administrators at the nearby John Archer School, which serves students with special needs, and they hope to talk with John Archer parents about students using the field.

‘Every child deserves a chance’

Walls cited the Miracle League’s motto, which states “every child deserves a chance to play baseball.”

He said his nephew, Matt Bearden, oversaw the construction of a Miracle League field near Birmingham, Ala. Bearden is president of The Over the Mountain Miracle League chapter, which started its inaugural baseball season in 2014, according to the chapter website.

“I did not know something like this existed until we saw it in Alabama,” Walls said.

Walls and his family founded the Harford County chapter in the summer of 2016, and it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in the summer of 2017, he said.

“We just felt like there needed to be one [chapter] up here,” he said.

Walls, who is also president of Plaza Ford in Bel Air, is president of the 10-person all-volunteer board. His wife, Sharon, and daughter, Katie Hargrove, are board members, too.

Other board members include Scott Elliott, of Harford Bank; Denise Dreiger, of Harford Community College; Ben Mayforth, a recent graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia who played wheelchair basketball in college; Julie Chmura, who previously worked for the ARC Northern Chesapeake; and Rick Bowlus, a retired Harford County Public Schools teacher who is active with community organizations such as the Special Olympics and The Posse - Baltimore Ravens Fans.

John and Wendy Little, whose special-needs son, Gabriel, died in January 2017, are honorary board members, Walls said.

Walls said people were selected for the board because of prior work with people with special needs, or, in the cases of Dreiger and Elliott, because they are “well known in the community and their community service.”

He cited other personal experiences that inspired him and his family to bring a Miracle League chapter to Harford County, such as a late cousin who had Down syndrome and friends at his church who have relatives with special needs.

“Just a combination of things drew us to the desire to get [the field] built,” he said.

Walls said he hopes to break ground May 1 and have the field open in time for a short season in the late fall, giving organizers time to learn how to run a baseball league and players some time to get used to the field and spread the word about it.

That schedule depends on fundraising, though. Walls said the chapter, which does not have any paid staff, has applied to several foundations in Maryland. He has also approached a number of local businesses for donations, and he is working with local legislators to obtain bond funding from the state.

About $50,000 has been raised so far, Walls said.

People can donate through the chapter’s website, http://www.mlharford.com. Donations can be sent by mail to: The Miracle League of Hartford County, 2202 Byton Court, Forest Hill, MD 21050,

Walls said the special-needs players partner with able-bodied people who help them hit the ball, run the bases and field batted balls.

“It makes [the players] inclusive in the community, because we are providing able-bodied community members to work with them,” he said.

Walls said Miracle League programs give people with special needs the chance to get outside for fresh air and activity.

He said people can understand the benefits by visiting the national Miracle League website, http://www.themiracleleague.net, and see videos of children using the fields.

“Just to see the look on their faces and the smiles, it’s just very heartwarming, very moving,” Walls said.

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