If you build it, will they come?

City officials and local disability advocates are counting on the answer being “yes” for a new baseball dream team.

Walla Walla Parks & Recreation staff, plus board members of Walla Walla Valley Disability Network, are forming a coed softball team for players with and without disabilities, a first-time effort here.

Amy Harris is seeing a home run. As mom to a special-needs daughter, baseball fan, and board member of the disability network, Harris said she’s learned recreational opportunities for disabled residents largely dry up once they reach adulthood. 

So why not coed softball, under the existing Parks & Rec’s regulated, competitive program, she reasoned.

It doesn’t have to be a grandiose first time at the plate, Harris explained. The city has agreed to some rule flexibility for the special-needs players, and there are allowances for teams that want to play half-seasons. It makes for what looks a promising marriage of need and solution, she said.

“I’m really excited to try something different. This has never been done before.”

The dearth of social and recreational options for older teens and adults with disabilities who have aged out of the student programs and summer camps is well known among parents and advocates.

“As we call it: ‘When the school bus doesn’t come anymore,’” said Susan Atkins, coordinator for Washington state’s Parent to Parent program.

Known as P2P, the program provides emotional and informational support to families with kids with developmental disabilities through local chapters and coordinators. The office for Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin counties is under the umbrella of the Valley’s disability network.

The adult life of a person with cognitive and other disabilities can be invisible to the outside world.

“Other families don’t know how it is. Their kids move on, get a job, go off to school, get an apartment,” Atkins said. “They start their lives.”

Not so, at least not often, for young adults with special needs. Gone are the school field trips and extracurricular sports, the clubs and choirs. The summer day camps and youth group outings are done.

It’s especially true for disabled adults who are not served by a residential program, are living at home and dependent on family and friends to integrate them into community activities. 

“Once the kids are out of school, everything comes to screeching halt,” agreed Teri Hough, former coordinator of Walla Walla County’s developmental disabilities program and mom of 28-year-old Brian Hough, who was born with Downs syndrome. 

There are adult sports and other programs through Parks & Rec, to be sure, but those don’t often work for grown-ups who still — and always will — need help and supervision.

“The small difference is our kids are a little more challenged in transitioning. Ours can do it, but the game would look like the younger kids’ game, which we can no longer participate in since we’re over 18,” Teri Hough said.

“I mean, they still want to play soccer, but it looks more like Under 10 (age category),” she added. “And softball, you should be able to have pitch or T-ball ... it’s not about the fundamentals of the game for our kids.”

Hough said she believes the city can and should underwrite recreational programs for adults with special needs.

In Issaquah, Wash., where Atkins lives, the funding pot for recreational programs is large.

“Some of that goes to the community center for programs for adults with special needs,” she said, adding that theater, dance, karaoke and Zumba sessions are popular choices for those users.

Getting those in place took a dedicated parent who promoted the idea and got on the board of the city’s Parks and Recreation to make sure officials understood inclusion, Atkins added.

Not every area of the state enjoys a robust menu of choices for this demographic.

In Thurston County, for example, officials said the extra staffing needed for special-needs programs made it too costly to continue offering those. Mount Vernon’s Parks and Recreation Department also nixed dedicated classes for those with developmental disabilities, Atkins said.

Parents need to be proactive and approach institutions such as the YMCA and churches, and private businesses to develop activities and classes for developmentally disabled adults, she added.

Special Olympics also is important in its mission to foster success in each athlete and provide a sports community to those otherwise left out of the competition loop. In rural areas, though, the program can have limited seasons, Atkins said.

Walla Walla County is in better shape than some counties due to its Valley Disability Network. Founded in 2014, the nonprofit agency has taken over the P2P program once funded by and administered through the county.

On March 30, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the bill proposed by Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, for increasing the statewide reach of P2P.

Since its beginning, the disability network’s goal has been to create social and recreation venues for its members, said administrator Carla Nibler. 

To date, the agency has been able to offer bowling, holiday parties, basketball, coffee klatches and Challenger baseball for people up to age 22. Pickle ball just got under way at the YMCA, and there is some discussion about potential swimming sessions there, Nibler said. 

The network also sponsors no-host dinners for parents once a month, where legal, legislative, health and educational information is dispersed, and moms and dads can talk honestly about the challenges of parenting a special-needs adult, Nibler said. 

One offering she is particularly proud of is pairing those adults with local college students.

Whitman College and Walla Walla University students participate in the local Buddies program, meeting with their developmentally disabled partners throughout the school year for various activities.

Through P2P, the network helps families with the never-ending paperwork, transition planning and more, including through outreach to Spanish-speaking parents, Nibler said.

And there’s more to be done. 

That new baseball team Harris envisions will need sponsors, equipment and scholarship donations, for starters. 

As they are so used to doing, families of special-needs folks will have to step up again and again, to help the volunteer-driven disability network continue its tasks, Nibler noted.

Meanwhile, Harris wants to see those adult children step up to home plate with a baseball bat in their hands. Registration for the team is due Thursday for the five-week season, and players can still join after the season is underway.

For more information call Harris at 509-200-2605.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.

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