Special-needs kids have their own field of dreams

You hear about it often, how youth sports are changing. With travel teams, all-star squads and AAU groups, the emphasis is trending toward individual success.

But that's not a concern for Randy Neil. He is director of the special-needs operation for the Grayson Athletic Association. The program - for children with mental, physical and multiple disabilities - includes spring and fall baseball along with basketball and cheerleading.

It also includes many satisfied parents, thrilled that their children have a league of their own.

"(Parents with) kids in the rec program think their kid is the next Chipper Jones," Neil said. "In the special-needs program, they're just glad their kid has a place to play."

The baseball field and playground area at Unity Place give special-needs children that opportunity. Located at Bay Creek Park in Grayson, it is home to nearly 400 disabled children who compete in various leagues. The field is padded with hard foam, making it accessible to all, including children in wheelchairs.

It's Neil's goal that the program be not only inclusive, but competitive as well. One of the things that makes the Grayson association unique is multiple divisions, ensuring the participants a good level of competition.

"(Parents) want their kids to be challenged," Neil said. "The last thing they want is for their kid to be out there for show.

"We have multiple levels of competition. We make sure every kid is challenged, but also put in a position to be successful."

Neil said the league draws kids from throughout Gwinnett and neighboring counties. The league holds fundraisers to help keep the cost down and is also raising funds to build a covered pavilion at the park.

The next event for the special-needs program is April 19, Neil said. The "family fun day" will include the movie "Everyone's Hero" along with dunking tanks, games and a picnic dinner.

The league, whose spring baseball season ends in mid-May, not only gives the kids a competitive outlet, it also gives the parents a support network. Sounds like what youth sports should be.

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Tuesdays.