MUSH-BALL Their own league: Challenger's kids grow with game

The Gillam family has helped the Challenger League for disabled children grow and thrive.
NORTH LIMA -- Edna and Lee Gillam and two of their five children, Amy and Danny, have been involved in the Challenger League for 11 of its 12 years of existence in Boardman.
The family's long participation in the mush-ball league, for disabled children ages 5-18, has proved to be highly beneficial to Amy and Danny, both South Range High graduates who are college-bound.
"First, it gave them the opportunity to socialize with other kids; and when they got on the field, all they were [was] just regular kids. No one judged them that they were a special-[education] child or a child with disability," said Edna, who serves as vice president of the league that is conducted by the Boardman Community Baseball League.
Her husband is manager of The Big A's, one of eight teams in the league that plays its games at the Field of Dreams complex on McClurg Road.
Self-esteem: "This league was a way [for Amy and Danny] to gain confidence, and then apply that confidence in other areas of their life," said Edna, noting that the league has helped their children to eliminate the barrier of limitations from their lives.
"We have rules in our house. One of the main ones is that, 'You can be anything you want to be. There are no limits.' And that is what we encourage all to do."
So, when the league opens its 12th season Sunday with a preview involving all 111 players on eight teams, the Gillams will be among the many dedicated families on hand to serve as volunteers to ensure that the league continues to expand and prosper.
On tap will be four one-inning games starting at 11:30 a.m., following opening ceremonies at 11. The regular season will start Tuesday with two games starting at 6 p.m.
Family tradition: Like all of the other parents, Edna and Lee serve as volunteers in the league. Now, Amy and Danny, both past the age limit to play at 20 and 18, respectively, are following in their parents' footsteps.
"Danny announces the games on Sunday, and Amy helps wherever we need her," said Edna.
After Amy and Danny played in the league for six and eight years, respectively, Edna believes they are further proof that the mush-ball program works as a developmental tool.
Amy, who has dysfunctional dyslexia, graduated from South Range last year and will enroll at Youngstown State this year to become a veterinarian.
Danny, who has attention-deficit disorder with learning disabilities, graduated from South Range this year, also will begin at YSU this year to study to become a computer analyst. Danny is an employee of Boardman Township and also builds computers.
Volunteerism: Edna said the league is a family experience that runs by volunteerism.
"I wear a lot of hats, including cleaning the bathroom and carrying the bats," said Edna. "We all take our turns. The parents are volunteers to run the league. Everyone rotates. Whatever needs to get done, gets done."
She said many are willing to contribute because, "These parents are just happy these kids have a league to play in because this is one of the few socialization times when they are not judged. If they didn't have their own league, then they probably wouldn't be playing."
This family commitment and tradition has enabled the league to grow larger and stronger each year. Players past the age limit tend to remain in the league as volunteers, increasing the alumni list.
"We have new families join every year -- 25 new families this year," said Edna. "And besides being just for [mush-ball], the league is a clearing house of information [on the various disabilities]. The families help each other. We become like family."
Expansion: The league also has fostered the creation of other related organizations for the disabled, such as Girl Scouts, Brownies, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and participation in the Soap Box Derby.
"These are all ideas created by the parents," said Edna, who credits sponsors for the Challenger growth.
One such benefactor was the late Bob Cene, an aluminum industrialist -- Astro Shapes of Struthers -- and also a baseball philanthropist.
"Bob Cene set up a fund that as long as there is a Challenger League, there will be an Astro Shapes-sponsored team in the league," said Edna.
In fact, Lee coaches the team sponsored by Astro Shapes.
Funds: Edna said funds from sponsors are used to buy equipment like mush-balls, bats, helmets and uniforms; and that each player pays a $15 fee that goes into a banquet fund.
She noted that the league doesn't determine a team champion, but instead uses the banquet as a post-season celebration.
The players and their guests will celebrate this year's season Aug. 6 at The Georgetown.

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