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Miracle League
Brett and Luke Hanson celebrated after scoring during the Central Illinois Miracle League game at General Electric Employees' Field, Friday, June 4, 2010. The games are designed to give children with various developmental disasbilities a chance to experience the fun of baseball. (The Pantagraph, David Proeber)

BLOOMINGTON — Five-year-old Faith Shepherd pushed her walker up to home plate at G.E. Park, hit a pitched ball and, with the help of a volunteer “Angel in the Outfield,” trotted to first base.

After three more hits by her fellow “Cubs” players Friday afternoon, Faith crossed home plate again, scoring her first run.

“She was so excited (about the game),” said her mother, Candice Shepherd of Bloomington. “Last week after practice, it’s all she talked about. This is another step to being independent and doing what her (twin) brother does.”

The same was true for most, if not all, of the 18 ballplayers playing in the first game of the first season of the Miracle League of Central Illinois.

The Miracle League, a national baseball program, typically serves 4- to 18-year-old girls and boys with disabilities.  The Central Illinois league, founded by Twin City businessman Bill Wright, has no age restrictions.

Wright’s 40-year-old daughter, Amy, who is autistic, also plays in the league, which currently consists of two teams: the Cubs and the Cardinals.

“She’s my inspiration,” said Wright.

In his quest to find work for his daughter, he first started a small vending operation with Marcfirst. In a search for other activities, he learned about the Miracle League.

“We felt there was a need here,” he said. “There’s nothing for these kids. Baseball is a wonderful opportunity to gain self-esteem.”

Candice Shepherd agreed.

“This is a great opportunity.  She (Faith) couldn’t play on a regular team,” she said. “She’s old enough now to realize her brother can do things she can’t.”

Faith was born with short thigh bones and was missing the ball and socket in both hips. After being told by several doctors and hospitals that nothing could be done, Candice and Nate Shepherd finally found one doctor who performed surgery so that Faith’s once bent-to-the-chest legs could be straight.

She now can walk with the help of a walker or crutches.

While it took extra effort for Faith to push her walker through the dirt on the field, Candice Shepherd said “she’ll fly” when the league builds a special, smooth field.

Wright hopes that field — on land by the Heartland Community College soccer field in northwest Normal — can be done for next season. The league recently spent $16,000 to have a water main installed for restroom facilities.

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It needs to raise $750,000 for the special rubberized field.

In the meantime, players including Jamie Fox, Kurt Kinley, Cody Griffin, and twins Luke and Brett Hanson use the G.E. field for each of their two-inning games.

Jamie, 10, has a muscle disorder that paralyzed his right side.

“This is an opportunity he’s never had,” his mother, Michelle Fox of Normal said of the baseball league. “He’s been very excited.”

While Kurt Kinley played in parks and recreation sports when he was younger, they became too complex as he grew older, said his mother, Michele Kinley of Normal. Kurt, 9, has Down syndrome.

“All this interaction with his buddies and the volunteers is huge,” she said. “He asks every day if it’s baseball day.”

Luke and Brett Hanson were the first and second up to bat for the Cubs.

“I hit it hard,” said the 9-year-old Luke, who has a disease that causes cognitive delays. “I ran fast.”

“It’s fantastic,” his dad, Greg, said of the league.

The league also is a perfect fit for Cody, said his parents, Rocky and Sallie Griffin of Bloomington.  Cody has physical and cognitive impairments and wasn’t able to play in other organized sports once he got past T-ball because they were too dangerous, said Sallie Griffin.

“He’s happy now,” said Rocky Griffin.

“It felt good,” said Cody after rounding the bases.

On the Web

Pitch in – For more information on the league, including how to donate,  volunteer or participate, go to: www.miracleleagueci.com

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