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Miracle Makers

Dec 16, 2012

In Des Moines, Iowa, a group of dedicated Kiwanians gives kids a chance to play ball like never before at a brand new Miracle League Baseball field.

Miranda plays Baseball

Miranda’s rounding third and heading for home.

It’s gonna be a close play at the plate.

Here comes Miranda.

Here comes the throw.

Safe!

Posing exactly in the center of the plate, Miranda stretches her arms wide to embrace the cheers rising from both teams’ bleachers. As her teammates come in behind her to score, she bows to the crowd. Royal and Cub fans alike cry out, “Way to go, Miranda! We love you, Miranda!” With her fingers pressed tightly to her lips, she blows kisses left and right, left and right.

It’s just another ordinary miracle, thanks to a group of not-so-ordinary Kiwanis clubs.

Miranda has Down syndrome. Until two years ago, she and other children with disabilities had few opportunities for playing organized sports in Des Moines, Iowa. No uniforms. No practices and games with friends. No facility to help them make the most of their abilities. Now, Miranda’s an all-star—just one of many miraculous stories that occur every season in Des Moines’ Kiwanis Miracle Baseball League.

It’s a miracle there’s a league at all. A series of miracles, actually. Here’s how it all came together.

Miracle 1

As a result of a club survey and strategic planning, the Kiwanis Club of Des Moines came away with a dream to find a project that would give the club a purpose, serve children and build the Kiwanis brand, with hopes that it would also attract new members. Past club president Al Knudsen remembered watching an HBO Sports documentary about baseball fields designed for children with special needs. He recalls, “I ordered the DVD thinking this could be the project we were looking for.”

The disc arrived with an unexpected bonus: a clip from the Today Show featuring Matt Lauer. “The HBO documentary was pretty straightforward,” remembers Bob Mitchell, the club’s strategic planning facilitator, “but Lauer’s piece had the emotional appeal.”

Upon learning there were no other Miracle League Baseball fields in Iowa, the committee took the proposal through a series of presentations: their club, Divisions 16 and 13, the Nebraska-Iowa District trustees, plus numerous city, county and civic officials. Watching the video and seeing kids wheel around the bases, swinging bats, smiling and laughing was all it took to win their hearts—and approval. A steering committee formed and became a board of directors. Bylaws were written. And the miracles continued.

Miracle 2

The Kiwanians couldn’t begin fundraising until they had a location. No problem: They soon learned that an existing youth baseball field in nearby Urbandale could be converted to a Miracle League Baseball facility with an all-rubberized surface.

The park’s $250,000-plus price tag far exceeded anything the Kiwanians had funded before. That’s why they studied every angle. They knew Des Moines has a supportive group of Kiwanis clubs and a generous corporate community. Officials said the city lacked recreational facilities for children with special needs. All the pieces were coming together. Success seemed certain. The Miracle League steering committee was ready to vote on refitting the Urbandale park.

Miracle 3

Club fundraising chairman John Keck mentioned the club’s plans to the Iowa Cubs, Des Moines’ Triple-A Baseball team. Coincidentally, the Cubs organization had a patch of ground next to its award-winning riverfront Principal Park in downtown Des Moines and was looking for something with high visibility for the site.

“We knew if we could get that location, it would be a home run,” says Mitchell, who now serves as the league’s president. “And it was.”

Following a meeting with Cubs owner Michael Gartner and general manager Sam Bernabe, documents for a long-term lease were drawn up and signed.

Miracle 4

Building a baseball park from bare ground changed everything. Grading, installing utilities, building a concession stand and restrooms and other necessities more than quadrupled the price to $1.45 million. The video kept working its magic.

“All people had to do was see that Matt Lauer video and the reaction was, ‘Where do I sign up and what can I do?’” says league secretary Carol Stone, who also is a Des Moines Kiwanis Club member.

Variety the Children’s Charity, which serves underprivileged, at-risk children with special needs, was one of the many foundations the Kiwanians approached for funding.

“Kiwanis made a very convincing presentation,” says Variety executive director Sheri McMichael. “They talked about the impact this would have on the kids, not only just on the kids but on the community too. It was a pretty easy decision for Variety to make a rather large commitment—nearly $60,000—for the ballpark’s fencing.”

Other financial gifts came in: $100,000, $25,000, $100, $10, as well as in-kind donations of labor and materials.

The largest and first gift came from the Kiwanis clubs, securing naming rights. “We all gulped when we signed the contract for over $125,000 for the field itself,” says club secretary Jan Burch. Division 13 and 16 clubs, as well as individual Kiwanians generously met the challenge. Now a sign, affixed to the top of the center-field scoreboard, proudly declares, “Kiwanis Miracle League at Principal Park.”

Miracle 5

Kiwanians knew that once the money was collected, they’d need skilled assistance to actually build the facility. Fortunately, member Mary Lou Garcia was participating in the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s annual leadership institutes for young professionals and youth. Each year’s class completes its year of training with a community service project, and Garcia proposed a partnership with Kiwanis on its Miracle League Baseball project. Eager to match the 2007 class’ zoo landscaping project, her 2008 classmates readily answered yes.

“Suddenly we had a whole group of people who had the exact expertise we needed,” Carol Stone explains. Volunteers from within the club’s membership and from the community rushed to be a part of the project. Architectural engineers drew up site sketches to help impress prospective donors. Lawyers helped file permit applications. Contractors trenched and installed lighting.

“We were down here painting the dugout roofs with brushes and rollers,” Mitchell recalls. “And it looked awful. Just awful. A construction company came down, put up some plastics, got out their spray guns and swish-swish, it was done. And it looks beautiful. Just beautiful.”

Miracle 6

Miracle League Baseball has introduced many Kiwanis members to the community of people living with special needs. Like most Des Moines Kiwanians, immediate past president Michelle Wall had no previous family or volunteer experience with people who have special needs, but now, as the Cardinals’ coach, she has no trouble recognizing the potential in her players—players like James.

On the mound, James turns his attention to the next slugger in the Cubs’ lineup. No secret finger signals pass between him and his catcher. Instead, his teammate claps, and James launches the four-inch ball toward the sound. A swing and a miss. The catcher throws to Coach Wall who hands it to her pitcher.

James is blind.

“We have a ball that beeps, and at bat, he can really whack it,” Wall says. “But in the field, it’s hard for him to be involved in the game. So I tried him as a pitcher, and he’s really good. He threw out the first pitch at one of the Iowa Cubs games, and it went right across the plate.”

Miracle 7

The Kiwanis Miracle League is breaking down barriers everywhere in the Des Moines community. Serving as an “angel in the outfield”—a buddy to the players—has become one of the most popular volunteer gigs in the area. Burly Barnstormers from the Arena Football League push wheelchairs around the bases. Shriner clowns show off their goofiest batting stances. Lincoln High School Key Club members play pass with the athletes in pregame warm-ups.

“Some people don’t know how to react when they meet someone with a disability,” says player/volunteer coordinator Joyce Byrne, who also is a member of the Northwest Des Moines Kiwanis Club. “Here, everyone’s having fun. You quickly forget about being uncomfortable.”

Miracle 8

Not once during five two-inning games did someone argue an umpire’s call. In this noncompetitive league, there’s no umpire, everyone gets to bat and every game ends in a tie.

As White Sox opponents cross the plate to score, Royals catcher Zachary tags them with high fives—not outs.

Miracle 9

Owen races in from the infield and tosses his glove onto the dugout bench, eager for his turn at bat. His father steps up to the dugout door and calls an encouraging “good job.”

“Earlier this season, he had hip surgery, so he didn’t play in the spring,” says his dad, Chad. “He’s up and running again, and we signed him up for the fall season as quickly as possible. This means a lot to us: to have him come down here and see him having a good time just running wild.”

Miracle 10

The Kiwanis Club of Des Moines experienced a 22 percent increase in membership while building the Miracle League field.

Miracle 11

Ask Des Moines Kiwanians what the Miracle League has taught their club, and they’ll answer, “Dream big.”

With the first pitch still a couple hours away, Bob Mitchell sweeps the bleachers and hangs new sponsors’ banners along the left-field fence before taking a break to think about the league’s future.

“We did a study and found there were more than 3,100 kids who could benefit from this type of facility,” he says. “We have 150 kids in our league, so there’s a lot more potential out there for other fields like this. This is the first one in Des Moines. The first one in Iowa.

“I think there’ll be more.”

That means more kiss-blowing Mirandas. More ace pitchers like James. Another friendly Zachary or two. More comeback MVPs like Owen.

Many more miracles.

Story and photos by Jack Brockley

Stories produced by KIWANIS Magazine

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