Joel Westbrook is like a lot of other 11-year-olds. He’s a fifth grader who loves science and wants to be a surgeon. He attends karate twice a week, and baseball is his favorite sport. He can even name every player on the Chattanooga Lookouts, his hometown minor league team.
Joel was also born with spina bifida, meaning his spine did not form correctly in the womb.
As a result, he can only walk short distances and uses a wheelchair most of the time.
In addition to spina bifida, Joel has hydrocephalus and a shunt to drain the excess fluid from his brain, as well as scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.
Finding ways to stay active helps Joel manage his condition.
Thanks to the Miracle League of Chattanooga and its new facility, Joel and other kids like him can play baseball in a safe environment, get some physical activity and meet new friends.
Accessible from the ground up
The Miracle League field in Chattanooga, only the second of its kind in the state, celebrated its grand opening in late September. It is specifically designed for children with special needs, ensuring that everyone has a safe and fun experience.
The field has a completely flat, rubberized surface that makes it easy for players with limited mobility to get around the bases.
“Joel has an interest in baseball, and if it weren’t for the Miracle League, he wouldn’t be able to play,” says Wendy Westbrook, Joel’s mother.
“His wheelchair would get caught in the dirt. Even if he could join a team, he couldn’t play on their field.”
Cara Standifer, marketing director of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, which runs the Miracle League, adds, “The Miracle League gives children and adults with special needs the chance to play baseball. It gives them a way to have camaraderie, to socialize with other kids and to experience a game in a setting that’s safe and specially designed for them.”
Winning is for everyone
The Miracle League was founded in Conyers, Georgia in 1998 with the mission of giving every child the chance to play baseball. Miracle League games are two innings each, and players get help from buddies, who assist them with batting and running bases. Every player gets to round the bases and score, so there are no losers.
“Everyone has fun. Everyone wins,” says Joel.
“Each game is two innings, but I’d like it to be more. I want to play as much as I can,” he adds.
Players are divided into teams named after some of Major League Baseball’s most recognizable outfits, including the Marlins, the Rockies and the Cardinals. Joel is No. 6 on the Braves. Playing in the league helps him strengthen his core muscles, which helps with his scoliosis and the other effects of his spina bifida.
Games aren’t just fun for the players, though. They also give their parents an opportunity to relax and enjoy seeing their kids on the field.
“I know he’s taken care of and I don’t have to worry,” says Wendy.
“The parents can cheer and be happy without being ‘on duty.’ That’s an opportunity we don’t usually get.”
Craig Westbrook, Joel’s father, adds, “There’s a lot of positive energy here, especially when the families cheer the kids on. Seeing the parents excited means the world.”
More than baseball
The Miracle League facility doesn’t just offer baseball, though. Next to the field is a brand-new accessible playground. Like the field, it has a rubberized surface so kids with mobility issues and those in wheelchairs can safely navigate around it.
“I was surprised at how soft the surface was,” Wendy says. “If we go to a regular playground, the ground will be mulch or dirt, and Joel can’t use his wheelchair on that.”
Built by Chattanooga-based PlayCore and funded by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation, the playground has plenty of ramps as well as accessible slides and swings so everyone can join in the fun. And, much like when their children are on the field, the parents can rest easy and let their kids play more independently.
“When we went to the playground when he was little, I had to be right there,” Wendy says.
“I can see him playing on this playground and me sitting on a bench knowing that he’s safe.”
The playground is filled with kids before and after the League’s Saturday games, and it’s even bustling with activity when games aren’t scheduled. “It’s a great addition to the community,” Wendy adds.
Martin Davis, who volunteers with the Miracle League as its director of buddies and coaches, notes that the League and its new facilities bring people together.
“The Miracle League connects kids with special needs and their families to form relationships that help build community and awareness,” he says.
“It’s a fantastic first step in allowing individuals with disabilities to enjoy the same activities others do on a daily basis.”
That’s a sentiment Joel’s parents share.
“When you find out your child will have special needs, you’re stunned. There are limitations,” Wendy says.
“All of a sudden you have things you know your child won’t be able to do and that you won’t be able to do as a parent. Organizations like the Miracle League allow parents and special needs children to share some of those everyday experiences.”
Craig adds that it’s not just the children who benefit from the new facilities. Parents often form connections during games and find comfort in sharing stories and advice with one another.
“Parents should stay positive and take advantage of community access like this,” he says. “Having a network of people you can call and talk to is a wonderful source of support.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about having a good time.
“It’s all positive. You have enough negativity and doctor’s appointments that go unexpectedly,” Wendy adds. “It’s nice to come here for an hour of baseball and fun.”