It's the first of its kind: The Great Neck Champions League is the only special-needs based baseball league in Virginia Beach.
The Champions League is volunteer-based and serves children ranging from 4 to 23 years old who are unable to play baseball in a traditional setting.
“I remember watching my beautiful daughter run to first base. For some children this may seem rudimentary, but for Els, for a special needs child, this was a milestone, for that day was a day that my daughter was a champion,” said league director Kelly Collins as she describes her experience as a parent for the Champions League.
Collins’s 5-year-old daughter Eliana has Down syndrome.
GNBL parent Christine Ross founded the league with board member Craig Carlucci in the summer of 2017, with the purpose of creating a judgment-free zone for special needs children.
That fall, the league had 11 players and more than 25 volunteers. Since then participation has doubled.
In the beginning, each child was assigned an adult and a junior volunteer, or “buddies.” The league’s organizers have since chosen to delegate the majority of responsibility onto the junior buddies. Ranging from elementary to high school, each buddy is assigned to children with whom they teach skills, practice and play.
“I feel I have a friendship with my buddy that will never go away,” said Andrew Lupien, a fifth-grade volunteer from Alanton Elementary School in Virginia Beach. Andrew has worked with the Champions League since its inception.
Eighth-grade volunteer Ryan Lupien from Lynnhaven Middle School in Virginia Beach said seeing the children overcome their disabilities is the most rewarding part of his job.
The Champions League focuses on more than just baseball. Participants also learn social skills through interactions with volunteers who aren’t much older than the players.
“The league has given my daughter an amazing opportunity to interact socially with her peers and the community,” said Collins. “It has created an open platform of acceptance, understanding and support for the families of special needs children.”
Ross designed the league to also incorporate the players' families. The support system and involvement among the parents is crucial to the success of special needs programs, she said.
The Champions League continues to grow, and Ross hopes to establish similar leagues across Hampton Roads and to emphasize the importance of autism as a spectrum. She said she hopes to be able to serve more children.