The founders of the county’s Miracle League prove that anyone can play ball
Call it serendipity.
When Delray Beach residents Julia and Jeff Kadel started a local sports league for children with special needs, they figured it would be a small way they could give back as a family.
Jeff Kadel had coached many of his sons’ teams when his three boys were growing up. Julia was a cheerleading and health coach. They were aware of the Miracle League concept for kids with special needs in Georgia, and thought it would be perfect for South Florida.
“We had literally a pipe dream. We had no clue how big this would get. This was supposed to be our little thing on Saturdays,” Julia recalls.
The Kadels started the Miracle League of Palm Beach County in 2005, played the first games in 2007 and built a field, made from recycled rubber, amidst the Little League fields at Miller Park in Delray Beach just for the Miracle League players, cheerleaders and volunteers in 2010.
Today, volunteers turn out in the hundreds. There are about 125 special-needs kids who participate. And participation is free.
“Even though baseball and cheerleading is the avenue for it, really it’s a community collaboration. We have hundreds of volunteers every Saturday from all walks of life. They come together to spend some time and have a great, soul-satisfying Saturday at the ballpark,” she says.
Julia says any child who can’t play in an organized league or sports team can join the Miracle League. Some of the league’s children are high-functioning and on the autism spectrum, while others are confined to wheelchairs.
She tells the story of a father who brought his son, who was in a wheelchair, to the Miracle League field. The boy couldn’t walk and had limited use of his arms. Jeff Kadel would hand the boy a baseball and ask him to throw it. He’d drop the ball, prompting Jeff to place it in his hand, again and again. He patiently worked with the child all season. At season’s end, he asked the boy’s father to come out to the field and watch.
Jeff Kadel put the ball in the child’s hand. At first, the boy dropped it. Jeff encouraged him to try again. The boy did, and threw the ball about three feet. “His father started bawling,” Julia says. “He said, ‘I never realized I could play ball with my son.’”
The Kadels pair every player with an able-bodied buddy. That buddy, or volunteer, might physically help the child or just be there to cheer. The children and their buddies become friends over time.
While it is a sport, Miracle League games are not competitive. Rather, the Kadels use the words “determination” and “persistence” to describe the league’s dynamics. “We’ll pitch to these kids 100 times until they hit it,” Julia says. “It’s just amazing to watch the friendships, the skills, how they’re starting to grow. They feel they’re being accepted. It’s acceptance all around.”
Julia quit her job a few years ago to work full-time building the Miracle League of Palm Beach County. She says the charity is looking for volunteers and donations in order to grow the league and make sure children can always participate for free.
The league holds games many Saturdays and has busy spring and fall seasons. The fall season is October and November, which includes a fundraising annual Dinner on the Diamond at the end of November, hosted on the Miracle League field.