Late Saturday morning, 24 athletes lined the side of the 7th Street baseball field in Clifton and removed their hats for the national anthem. After a round of applause, the fourth game of the special needs baseball league kicked off with a hit on the very first pitch.
This season marks the third year of the ACBA Champions League founded by Sherri Gifford. After watching her sons play baseball, Gifford decided it was time to give her daughter, Allison, a chance to learn the sport.
"I have nine kids. Eight boys and one girl, who has special needs," Gifford said. "Her brothers all have played sports and had music lessons and things. She always came to the games but she didn't have anything for herself. I looked into getting her into baseball and the closest stuff was all in Joliet or Champaign."
After contacting pre-existing leagues for help getting started, Gifford spread the word through organizations such as Gigi's Playhouse, the River Valley Special Rec Association and more. Now, Champions League has four teams, with the athletes ranging in age from 4-22 and hailing from all over Kankakee and Iroquois counties.
"We don't keep score. We're just letting the kids enjoy themselves and learn the game," Gifford said. "My favorite part is just watching these kids have such fun. We're pretty easy going here."
"You've got to keep a sense of humor," field coordinator Emily Aamoth said.
While Gifford put in much of the work to get the organization started, she maintains that the success of games is a group effort and a constantly evolving process. Board members and coaches all volunteer time to coordinate games and make sure everything runs smoothly, and local organizations, such as Easter Seals, have helped donate the necessary special equipment.
"We have special 12-inch tees for the kids who need them, and Easter Seals donated this special ball that makes noise for visually impaired kids," Gifford said. '"In the special needs community, it really is a community effort. It takes a village to raise a child."
During games, each player is paired with a buddy to help guide them and keep them safe. Tammy Saathoff serves as buddy coordinator for the league and her children play in the games to help players with special needs.
"We got notified through our regular baseball sign ups," Saathoff said. "They really enjoy it."
Three of Gifford's sons are buddies in the league along with parents, friends and other volunteers.
"I like to help my buddies so they don't get hurt. I say, 'Run to this base; run to that base,'" said Gifford's 11-year-old son, Kyle.
"Sometimes, I say, 'Don't let me beat you to the base!' and stuff. They love it," said Bryant Lamie, 10, who plays as Allison's buddy. "I really love playing baseball. Allison is just another friend."