Play ball

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By David Aaro
mail@floridanewsline.com

Remember that voice telling Kevin Costner, “If you build it, they will come?”

Well, in St. Johns County, they built it and special needs children and their families came. For them, the Field of Dreams is a place to connect, have fun and play a sport that many of us take for granted.

Field of Dreams is a specifically designed turf baseball field that was constructed in 2010 at Aberdeen Park. For the past five years this field has allowed children with mental and physical disabilities living in northeast Florida the opportunity to play baseball, wear a uniform and play as a member of the team.

On Saturday, Feb. 6, one hundred thirty-two of those children got to put on a uniform and play as a member of an organized baseball team. Paired with students from Bartram Trail High School, they were able to run around the bases, hit the ball, smile and even slide into home if they felt like it.

“Some kids put their uniforms on the night before, because they are so excited,” said Gene Kolisnyk, president of the Field of Dreams.

One reason for the success of Field of Dreams so far has been the buddy system. For each event, every special needs child is paired with a buddy, usually a local high school student. That student stays by the child’s side the entire game and helps him or her hit and run around the bases if needed.

For one of the children in a wheelchair, his buddy helped him to hit the ball and also pushed the wheelchair all the way around the bases until they got a home run. The buddy volunteers on Saturday were members of the Bartram Trail High School softball and track and field teams.

After the game, each special needs child gets a “Buddy Ball” signed by all the buddies who volunteered that day.

“When the kids talk about their experience, they always bring up their time with their buddy. They make lifelong friends with them and even end up texting with them and connecting on social media,” said Kolisnyk.

Head umpire and buddy coordinator George Vancore speaks with the buddy volunteers before each game.

“The important thing is to make a friend. You can hug. Kids will be telling their parents about their buddy and that’s what matters most to them. It’s important to play the sport but also make a friend,” Vancore said.

Local radio personality Jeff Prosser has been volunteering at the opening ceremony with Field of Dreams for the past five years.

“When I started here in their first year, there were around 30 kids. You take so much for granted that spending three hours here really puts that in perspective. I help with the opening ceremony, but the people working here are the real heroes,” said Prosser.

The Field of Dreams season extends for 10 weeks, with eight games played each week. Feb. 6 was the inaugural event for this year.

Vancore summed up the experience by saying, “If you don’t leave with a tear in your eye and heart, then you haven’t been here.”

Photos by Ken Futch

Batter up! Umpire George Vancore makes the call

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The Opening Ceremony for Field of Dreams included a color guard.

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Players receive instruction from their Buddies during the games

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Players and their Buddies round the bases at the Field of Dreams.

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An exuberant player at the Field of Dreams.

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George Vancore and Bartram Trail High School varsity softball coach Jen Harman at the Field of Dreams opening day, Feb. 6.