ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. - For many families of children with special needs, it can be challenging for everyone involved when it comes to having the child be involved in a sport.
But 10 years ago, a unique baseball league was created by a mother and son in Central Florida so that every child, regardless of their abilities, could enjoy a life-changing experience through baseball.
"I'm sitting there looking at my wife, looking at my mother, looking at my wife, at my mother, and tears are coming out of my eyes," Matt Morgan said about his newfound hope.
Morgan, a former professional World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler and now deputy mayor of Longwood, has a 5-year-old son with autism who doesn't speak.
During a charity event, he found out about the Central Florida Buddy Ball Baseball League.
"It's a godsend to have this in Central Florida. He can go out and play it, and he can part take in it, learn the love of the game of baseball like every other child gets to learn," Morgan said.
Two seasons in, Morgan is already seeing the impact the league has had on his son's social skills.
"He used to be by himself and isolated -- not since Buddy Ball. Buddy Ball has introduced him to the fact that he can take something and give it to one of his friends and engage with that friend. That's huge," Morgan said.
Sarah Reece, the president of the Central Florida Buddy Ball Baseball League, said the program benefits everyone involved.
"We wanted a program to not only help our special-needs population, but the buddies that come to also be a part of that program. They get as much from the program as anybody does, and our buddies come from all over," Reece said.
High school students and community members all pitch in and get results for the kids, regardless of their abilities. Every season, you'll find them at Eastmonte Park in Altamonte Springs.
"They come and they love working with these kids," Reece said.
Morgan said the most amazing part of it all is that you get a chance to see them work through things together, no matter what their selective differences are.
Seth Reece, Sarah Reece's son and the vice president of the league, got choked up and could barely hold back tears as he tried to explain what it all meant to him.
"It means a lot ... um ... give me a second here," Seth Reece said.
Ten years ago, the father of three took his team of young players to volunteer at a baseball game for differently abled children in Orlando.
"It was something that was beyond just the players on the field and how amazing it was to see them out there doing a baseball game, and to see these kids react to them and put themselves in this situation and help them out (to) get through the baseball game," Seth Reece said.
It was a home run experience that inspired him to start a league in Seminole County -- to be able to get results all the time. Then, he got his mom on board.
"We started raising money because we had to build a special field for the kids," Sarah Reece said.
They managed to raise nearly $72,000 through events with help from the city.
The same field Seth Reece once played on as a young boy was covered with rubberized material. The dugouts were also made big enough for wheelchairs.
"It's a special field so that you can push wheelchairs on it and walkers, and kids that have a gait problem can run without hurting if they fall," Sarah Reece said.
"It's getting huge results for the community. People drive from all over for this league, too. Let's be clear: It is not just Seminole County. We have somebody -- I know that for a fact -- that comes from Miami, Florida, to have their kid play in this league," Morgan said.
Sarah Reece said it brings her joy to know others find joy in the league.
"To see their faces and how they cheer and enjoy the game, watching their child play a game of baseball, is beyond words," she said.
Seth Reece said he makes sure the kids know not to take the opportunity for granted.
"I tell my kids and my baseball kids all the time, you're lucky to tie your shoes and put your cleats on and run on the field. There's so many other kids that would love to do that, and this is that opportunity for them," he said.
Morgan said his community is lucky to have the league.
"We're incredibly lucky to have it in the community, and I would argue we're lucky to have it, period, in the state of Florida," Morgan said.
The Central Florida Buddy Ball League operates through donations and with the help of volunteers.
The program is offered at no cost to families. Registration includes gear and uniforms. To contact the league, email Sarah Reece at Sarah.Reece@orlandohealth.com.
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