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Challenged Child and Friends teaches students, siblings about sports
Kids play baseball in spring and football or cheerleader in fall
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Caden Brown, 3, runs home with the ball May 7during a Guppies T-ball game sponsored by Challenged Child and Friends at City Park in Gainesville. The children get together every other Saturday for a game. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Challenged Child and Friends
What: Nonprofit preschool for children with disabilities and their typically developing peers
Address: 2360 Murphy Blvd., Gainesville
Phone number: 770-535-8372

A little boy in a blue shirt holds a baseball bat uncertainly in his hand.

His coach nudges him toward the tee, where a whiffle ball balances. She guides him to grasp the bat in both hands, pull it back and swing.

This dual action between coach and child is repeated often at a small field at City Park in Gainesville with the Guppies.

But this little league team is not filled with your average tiny tots. The children on the team attend Challenged Child and Friends, a nonprofit preschool for children with disabilities and their typically developing peers.

The team also is not relegated to only the spring and summer activity of baseball. The team plays a variety of sports year-round. Challenged Child offers a flag football team and cheerleading squad in fall. And in spring, Guppies pick up a bat and ball for T-ball games on Saturdays.

The school partners with Gainesville Parks and Recreation to offer the league for its students and their siblings.

“This is something I’ve dreamed about forever,” said Shana Ramsey, program support coordinator for Challenged Child and Friends. “Three years ago, I was able to start the team, and it’s been an amazing journey to see families come together for this.”

Barry Stanley and his daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Stanley, attended the last Guppies T-ball game Thursday, during Challenged Child’s last day of school. Elizabeth’s 3-year-old son, Bency, and her 3-year-old nephew, Elijah Fincher, played on opposing teams.

Barry Stanley donned a special T-shirt for the occasion, which read “Guppies Grandpa.”

“This is a great, great program,” Barry Stanley said. “When they get out there and play, they’re just typical 3-year-olds.”

Barry said Bency was recently diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. But his grandson has grown tremendously since starting at Challenged Child this school year.

“He’s starting to say some things, but think about how it would be if we couldn’t just talk to each other,” Barry Stanley said. “It would be incredibly frustrating. He loves to run and to play outside, so this is just great to see.”

Elizabeth Stanley said the Guppies program keeps the children active and gives them a needed outlet.

“We play a total of four games each season,” Ramsey said. “We start out with two or three practices here at Challenged Child, and then after we practice here consecutively for a few weeks. We start our first game at City Park.”

Challenged Child and Friends serves children ages 6 weeks to 6 years old. Guppies range in age from 3-5.

“We start young and try to have all-inclusive teams,” Ramsey said. “Everybody, including those with wheelchairs and walkers.”

Teaching the children the rules of the game is only one aspect of Challenged Child’s curriculum. The school provides early education intervention in the classroom and speech, occupational and physical therapy services in a variety of models that include direct treatment and collaboration with teaching staff.

But its primary focus is helping children of all abilities levels and their families adapt, grow and feel fruitful at home and in their communities.

The point is for them to find normalcy, Ramsey said, like parents watching their children play a little league baseball game.

Jamie Reynolds, executive director of Challenge Child, said one of the greatest things about the little league isn’t the athletes.

“You know what’s neat to watch? The parents,” Reynolds said. “The parents love seeing their children play.”

Guppies games aren’t your average little league games. Angry parents aren’t shouting from the sidelines. Many parents are on the field, engaging with their child.

Ramsey and Reynolds explained the games also allow parents to network with each other and talk about their similar experiences. Barry Stanley agreed.

“You’ve got to stop and think about all these parents,” he said. “Think about what they’ve been through. I know what my family’s been through, and it’s tough. But this helps in so many ways.”

Barry Stanley also takes the opportunity to spoil not only his grandson during the events. He includes the other children as well. He brought cupcakes for all the children Thursday to celebrate their last game.

“And they get so excited,” she said. “It’s just awesome to see.”

Barry Stanley said he’s been to every Guppies game, driving from Pendergrass to watch his grandson play.

“I only have one son, and now I have the one grandboy,” he said. “So anything and everything I can do for him, I do. I just appreciate being here.”