It's not uncommon to find scores of Orange County children spending their evenings and weekend mornings playing soccer, baseball or basketball on courts and fields that dot the Southern California region. But if you look a little closer on a fall evening, you may see groups of would-be child athletes teamed up with much older "buddies." You may see similar crowds in the summer at various baseball diamonds, or on a winter day at a local YMCA basketball court. The athletes, who typically have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida or general developmental delay, return each week for practice sessions and weekend games.
What is uncommon, however, is that there is one man who has helped lead these programs -- called Challenger Baseball, TOPS and VIP soccer and Hot Hoops basketball -- for the last two decades.
That man, Dr. Darrell Burnett, is the Assistant District Administrator for the Challenger Division in Districts 55 and 68 of Little League, a board member of Little League International, a clinical psychologist, a certified sports psychologist and a published author. To many of the over 300 kids who participate in the three sports programs, he's simply "Coach."
Dr. Burnett told The Huffington Post that he became aware of the Challenger program in 1991, when the first Southern California teams were formed. "I was giving a talk about positive coaching, and this dad came up to me afterwards and said, 'Hey, we have this program, do you want to help us?' I had done a post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA in clinical psychology, with a specialization in developmental disabilities, so I had a soft spot in my heart for that crowd."
He said at the time there were less than 10 young athletes.
It has been amazing to see the program grow, he said. "It wasn't an overnight sensation," Dr. Burnett noted. "At the time there were only a handful of kids playing when no one else was around and they just had t-shirts."
"When I ran hospital programs for teenagers with developmental disabilities, I realized that almost every one of the kids I saw had dropped out of youth sports," Dr. Burnett said. "I have a huge bias towards youth sports because I have very fond memories of my time in them, and I knew it was good for developing self-esteem. The kids said they had a lot of negative energy from parents and coaches, and I started writing booklets on positive coaching. I was in that groove when the program came along."
Over time, the Challenger program expanded to two districts with participants ranging from younger children to middle school youth. The younger players are teamed up with "buddies" throughout the season. The buddies come from local Little League teams, and volunteers (typically high school-aged students) also assist the coaches during practices. The program even takes a yearly trip to nearby Angels Stadium, where it takes part in the Challenger Classic, co-sponsored by Bank of America and the Angels Foundation.
At the end of the regular season, as many as 400 participants take over the outfield, where five smaller diamonds have been fashioned. The children get to see their faces on the jumbotron, which Dr. Burnett said they find extremely rewarding.
Aside from baseball, Burnett also oversees a local soccer league's TOPSoccer program and the National Junior Basketball League's Hot Hoops program. Practices are a characterized by a sense of team building and positive energy -- it's not uncommon for players to high five or even hug their buddies, but the practices have the same drills and skirmishes that characterize any other youth sports program. Though abilities vary somewhat wildly, Dr. Burnett says that's not the point: "These sports are, to me, the essence of what youth sports should be -- kids first, athletics second. The parents are high-fiving other parents, regardless of the team."
Dr. Burnett describes the programs as a win-win for the players and volunteers, and it's easy to see why. By giving back to their community and coaching children with developmental disabilities, volunteers form a strong bond with their neighborhood and the youth they work with. In turn, the youth see positive role models in the form of teenagers who aren't judging or excluding them, but rather welcoming them with high-fives and warm hugs.
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