Kristine Fitzpatrick founded the Miracle League to provide homerun miracles to children with special needs on Long Island.
Five-year-old Greyson Erwin loves baseball. Every Saturday when he arrives at the baseball field, he approaches his coach and says: "I'm here. Where do you want me to go, Coach? When do you want me to bat, Coach?" And though he gets around the bases in his power wheelchair, that hasn't stopped him from proudly declaring to anyone he meets that he's a baseball player: "I play for the Miracle League. Do you want to see my trophies?"
Kristine Fitzpatrick (left) with one of the young ball players on the special league she started two years ago to serve children of varying abilities
Greyson, of Massapequa, has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which makes him unable to walk. He is one of 150 kids with special needs like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and ADHD who play in the Miracle League of Long Island, a charitable organization that provides a baseball league for children with disabilities.
The program was started in 2010 by Dix Hills resident Kristine Fitzpatrick after she spent years volunteering for a similar program in Westchester. "I'm a sales rep in the athletic construction industry, and in 2004 we helped create the first field in Westchester that was custom-designed to accommodate wheelchairs,” says Fitzpatrick, a single mom to Peter, 17, and Wade, 13, both of whom are typically developing. "I'd bring my sons up there every weekend to volunteer, and I decided we needed to have one on Long Island."
The athletes, ages 5-19, play at the Pennysaver Amphitheater at Bald Hill in Farmingville. It has a smooth field and dugouts that are handicap-accessible.
"The first year we had 30 families involved. Now we have 200 families and six teams with 25 kids each,” Fitzpatrick says.
Buddies, Baseball, and Advocacy
Every child gets up at bat and scores a home run. They meet from 9:30am-2pm on Saturdays for six weeks from May to June and again in September through their closing ceremony on Oct. 13. The event even draws kids from Manhattan and Queens.
"I never expected the league to grow this fast," Fitzpatrick says. "It has taken on a life of its own. I'd like to see it grow to five fields on Long Island."
Hank's Yanks volunteers with players on the Miracle League of Long Island
Fitzpatrick says what motivates her is simple gratefulness as she is now 20 years cancer-free after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. "I can't put a price on my time because with this league I'm surrounded by goodness. Everyone is so kind. My favorite part is I get lots of hugs and kisses from the kids, and I know every child by name."
Greyson's dad Douglas says that the league gives children the chance to experience a giving community and brings the parents together as well. "Whatever your child's situation, you learn so much more from the other parents. It gives so much for the children with special needs, for the parents, and the volunteers," he says. "It's so much positive energy, lots of cheering. It's the happiest place to be."
For Therese Blanton, whose 12-year-old son Luke has Down syndrome, having the athletic opportunity is another bonus. "Luke is a Yankee fan and knows all the positions and rules," she says. "There are not that many experiences for kids with special needs to have the chance to participate in sports. This is an important place for him because there’s no judgment, just total acceptance."
Fitzpatrick says that the benefits of the league extend to mainstream kids as well because an important component is the BUDDY program. "BUDDY stands for Because Unbelievable Dedication Deserves You," she says. “Each player has a volunteer who is there to protect the player from balls, assist the player in batting and running the bases, and to be a friend on and off the field."
There are more than 600 volunteers in the program, and they come from the sports teams at local colleges like Dowling and CW Post, boy scout troops, high schools, and last month, Hank's Yanks. Volunteers get community service, a T-shirt, and a hot dog and drink.
"But more importantly, they get a chance that changes their lives," Fitzpatrick says. "A lot of the buddies have never been with special needs kids before. This really opens their eyes to the struggles these kids go through—and that they are kids with special needs, but they’re still just kids."
Says Douglas Erwin: "Kristine leads by example for all the buddies who come out to be with our kids. If all of them turn into young Kristines, it will be a very special world we live in."
To learn more about the Miracle League of Long Island, visit mllongisland.com. Contact Fitzpatrick at [email protected] or 631-278-6385.
Liza N. Burby is contributing publisher of "Long Island Parent" magazine.