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'It's a win': Miracle Field takes love of sports to new level

East Lyme — The Miracle League of Southeastern Connecticut has leveled the playing field.

Years of volunteer networking, fundraising and teamwork culminated in April, when athletes of all abilities converged on the $500,000 Miracle Field for its inaugural spring season. Tucked behind Flanders Elementary School, the vivid, synthetic turf surface is where kids with physical, cognitive or developmental challenges can be found for at least the next couple of Sundays as they engage in America's favorite pastime and a host of other pursuits.

It's also where you have a good chance of running into Dave Putnam, the East Lyme Parks and Recreation director and league's executive director.

Putnam, who each Sunday takes on the additional role of sports announcer, sat behind the microphone at a baseball game for kids in the 11-and-up Miracle League division earlier this season.

"We've got Colby up," he said. "Colby to clear the bases!"

Colby Van Dusen of Salem stepped up to home plate with a bold prediction.

"I'm going to hit the parking lot," the 17-year-old said.

Putnam responded with a forecast of his own after witnessing Colby's practice swing: "If you get contact, that's going on the roof of the school."

The player with Down syndrome was met with cheers — "Let's go, Colby," "You got it, Colby" and "Bring 'em all home, Colby!" — from the families and supporters spread out in the bleachers and camping chairs around the field fence.

"He plays hard, he does," Putnam told the crowd. "Swings hard, plays hard."

The words had just left the announcer's mouth when Colby punctuated them with the solid thwack of aluminum on baseball for an in-the-park home run.

The crowd, as they say, went wild.

Baserunners, some on foot and some in wheelchairs, rounded the bases one after the other. Colby slid into home, triumphant but pragmatic.

"I missed the parking lot," he said.

Miracle League rules state every player scores a run before the inning is over and the last batter gets a guaranteed dinger. There are no strikeouts. All players are safe on all bases. Each team and each player wins every game.

Jen Van Dusen said her son feels good about himself every time he plays on the Miracle Field.

"He feels like anything he does is positive, and it's a win," she said.

Colby also plays adaptive soccer and basketball through the town Parks and Recreation Department and has participated in the Miracle League iCan Bike program. His mother said the opportunities give him the space to show his skills among his peers the way his siblings, Max and Emma, get to do with their own busy schedule of baseball, softball, soccer and basketball games.

"We live in a family that loves sports," she said. "This is Colby's chance to have his grandparents come and watch him, and his siblings cheer him on, and he gets excited about that. He really sees it as his baseball team."

First in the region

Some game-day volunteers that morning served as "buddies" to assist the players, while other volunteers made up the opposing team. The helpers included high school students — among them members of the East Lyme High School baseball team — as well as college students, siblings, parents and other supporters.

Michael Santangelo, who pitched for the decorated New London American Legion baseball team in the 1980s, was the game's pitcher. His 15-year-old daughter, Morgan, played with a buddy on either side to help her hit, run and field the ball.

Santangelo, of Waterford, said after the game that there weren't programs like this for kids with special needs when he was growing up. Now opportunities are more plentiful, and his daughter is making the most of them.

He said Morgan also participated in the Waterford Little League Challenger division, which is similar to the Miracle League.

"She watched her brothers and sisters grow up and watched them play sports and she always wanted to do it. So when the opportunity came, it was easy. She never stopped," he said.

East Lyme's Miracle Field is the first in the region, and the second in Connecticut. It was designed by TO Design of New Britain and built by Earth Dynamics of Coventry.

The field is made with a synthetic turf surface — with short "nap" to simulate green grass — that does not include crumb or infill rubber. The layout also features a scoreboard and dugouts that are similar to traditional baseball fields, but smaller in overall size to better accommodate children with disabilities. The playing surface should last up to 12 years, according to Putnam.

Putnam said spring season programming, which includes baseball, kickball, lacrosse clinics and dance, runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays and is set to end later this month. There are 92 participants spanning Madison to North Stonington to Griswold.

'Not the odd one out'

Jessica Stearns of East Lyme is a member of the organization's board of directors and the mother of Miracle League player Gabrielle Carrico.

Stearns said Gabrielle, 7, was born prematurely and has autism. Mother and daughter alike described the one-on-one attention offered through the program as one of the key benefits.

Gabrielle participates in baseball and dance with the help of Miracle League buddies that she calls her "assistants."

She said her assistant that day in the 4- to 10-year-old baseball division helped her a lot.

"At the end, she said, 'I'm so proud of you,'" Gabrielle recalled.

Evangeline Hebberd of Killingworth is one of Gabrielle's baseball teammates. The 6-year-old has epilepsy, ADHD and a disruptive mood dysregulation disorder that makes her prone to temper outbursts, according to mother Stacey Fowler.

"We tried regular activities for her and she always got disappointed, feeling like she was not as good as the others," Fowler said. "But this one, she fits in really well and she feels more included and not the odd one out."

Fowler said all three of her children now have "their thing" — a sport or activity that makes each one special.

"Now they've all got something, and she didn't get left out," she said.

Community uses field, too

Miracle League of Southeastern Connecticut board of directors President Gina Morris of Niantic first heard about the organization at the same time her daughter, Madeleine, was diagnosed with autism. She immediately called Putnam to find out how to help.

In addition to watching Madeleine play kickball on Sunday afternoons, Morris helps keep the long day running smoothly. And when she's not doing that, she's overseeing phase two of the Miracle Field project as the organization works to secure another half-million dollars.

"There are a lot of people on the board of directors and a lot of people in southeastern Connecticut that worked really hard and donated a lot of time and money to get this project up and running. And we couldn't have done it without the community's help," she said.

Phase two will cover construction of restrooms and the renovation of the playground next to the field to make it fully accessible.

Putnam said once that happens, the Miracle Field will "really become a destination."

The area already includes a $50,000 accessible basketball court paid for in full by the Kevin's Kourt Project of the Kevin Ollie Charity Classic and 21st Century Tolland Fund. Kevin Ollie is the former head men's basketball coach for the University of Connecticut.

Putnam noted the evolving facility can and should be used by the wider community. He said students at the elementary school enjoy playing on the basketball court and the town tee ball program takes to the baseball field on Saturdays.

"When it's not being used for adaptive sports, I want the community out here using it," he said of the Miracle Field.

Putnam cited a fundraising grand total of almost $700,000 so far. That leaves roughly $300,000 to raise, which he hopes to accomplish within the next year and a half.

He described the community as incredibly supportive of the initiative. "The whole community has gotten behind this," he said. "They see the value in this."

Colby's mom, Jen, who works as a special education coordinator in the East Lyme school system, knows first-hand from multiple perspectives just how valuable the Miracle Field is to the athletes and their families.

She said the parents cheering on their children at the Miracle Field and leaning on one another for support represent a peer network they will carry with them long after the game ends.

"I feel like that was kind of missing for us when Colby was younger," she said of the time before she discovered Putnam and his adaptive sports programming.

In the small town of Salem, the family found an accepting and supportive community, but they did not find a lot of other families that included children with disabilities.

"As a parent, you're searching for that a little bit," she said.

For more information about the Miracle League of Southeastern Connecticut, including how to donate or volunteer, visit www.mlsect.org.

e.regan@theday.com

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