Chicago’s Very Own: Mark Johnson

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Welcome to Challenger Baseball in Dundee, where every kid bats, hits, runs bases, and scores. It’s a unique group of kids, in a league all their own.

Challenger Baseball is aimed towards children with special needs, which allows kids like 10-year-old Kayla Graziano the chance to be just like any other kid and enjoy America’s favorite pastime.

Said Graziano, “I feel like I’ve changed from being like a really happy girl to like a super intense really really happy girl.”

This year, something extra special is happening to the team. They’ve been chosen by Little League as one of two Challenger teams in the country to play in the Challenger Exhibition Game in the 2013 Little League World Series, to be televised on national TV  in August.

Mark Johnson, the coach of the team, further explained the goal of Challenger Baseball.

Said Johnson, “It’s a combination between buddies and players and together they make what Little League calls the challenger program.”

The buddies are there to lend a hand, help the players catch, and run bases. Coach Johnson says that it’s a win-win situation.

Conor Nolan is a buddy for the team. Nolan said, “I feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives, it’s as simple as that.”

Added Conor’s mom Colleen, “We’re raising a generation of kids that look at someone with special needs and don’t see the disability, they just see another kid.”

Said Johnson, “Anybody that loves baseball dreams about going to the Little League World Series. Because these kids have some sort of special needs doesn’t mean you should exclude then from that opportunity.”

It was Johnson who believed in these kids and knew the exhibition game was their field of dreams, and you can bet Coach Johnson hits a home run with his team.

Said Graziano, “I’m excited to hit a home run with my pink bat and excited to just get out there and do my best.”

Coach Mark Johnson and his team, they’re Chicago’s Very Own.

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  • Cristy

    I love that this program is helping special needs kids enjoy the great game of baseball. I also love that the helpers are gaining compasion and understanding that these special needs kids are kids too. There are friendships made and personal growth in everyone connected.

  • Susan

    My son just finished his 2nd year as a "buddy", and I can tell you that this program has had a positive impact on him. He was paired up with the same player, and I can see a bond forming between them. I can only imagine how awesome it makes each player feel!!