It all started with one child’s wish, and seven years later it has grown into a community that’s never existed anywhere on the planet before.
If you fail to believe, then make plans to attend the Miracle League’s Opening Day this Saturday at the J.B. Chambers I-470 Complex in the Elm Grove section of Wheeling. Once you drive up to the hilltop where the six fields rest, make a left and follow the gravel roadway past Lisa’s Field, then past Ben’s Field, and then look to the back of the complex, and you will find the miracle your life needs.
It is a baseball field like no other in the Friendly City because this one cost more than $1 million to construct. There are fences and baselines and a concession stand and a scoreboard, but at the Miracle League Field these athlete never make an out, always score a run, and every half inning ends with a grand slam home run to knot the score once again.
And these special-needs athletes have reason to smile more than ever before because suddenly they are not segregated because of their disabilities. Instead, they become athletes after living through years of being told it was impossible, and in true “Build-it-and-they-will-come” fashion, the Miracle League of the Ohio Valley now owns a roster of nearly 100 members.
And it’s all thanks to one Wheeling woman named Lorraine McCardle.
Her son, Austin, dreamed of playing football back in 2008, and Lorraine immediately went to work after she and her husband, Brad, settled their son in for the night. She tapped out “Google” and searched for “sports for special needs.” Nothing related to football appeared, but something close to baseball did.
McCardle, a 1984 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, discovered that a few communities, including Morgantown, W.Va., had special fields on which a disabled individual could fall and not suffer injuries. The entire field and dugout areas possess this padded turf, and protective fencing is carefully placed too.
But it would not have happened without McCardle’s pounding the pavement, literally, to talk to this organization and that foundation in search of whatever amount people thought they could donate toward the dream project. When this mother of two (daughter Megan will be 20 next week) believed she had collected enough to get it all started, the returned bids broke her heart.
The Miracle League Field with Morgantown’s Milan Park was built for a little more than $500,000 in 2007. When McCardle and Lori Untch, the former executive director of Easter Seals in Wheeling, opened the proposed prices for their field, they cried and they cursed.
The price had nearly doubled in a just a few years, and the money wasn’t there.
That’s when McCardle turned her efforts up a notch, and that’s when Pirates Charities, the charitable arm of the Pittsburgh Pirates, became involved. That $250,000 donation and the continued support from the Nutting family allowed for construction that finally led to Opening Day on June 26, 2013.
Now, two years later, McCardle has a new non-profit partner in the J.B. Chambers YMCA, and while she adores Easter Seals, she realizes that an expansion beyond that magical diamond is possible. Soccer, swimming, basketball – whatever – are now options, and we’re also talking 12 months per year.
So far, the dream has come true. Her son, Austin, has played ball – even football – and she has also created that community that’s never been a reality. It’s empowered us all, really, through education via an exposure we used to fear out of ignorance.
Novotney: Explain the status of the Miracle League of the Ohio Valley today.
McCardle: We are so much better than were on the day I started searching for something for my son on the Internet. He wanted to play sports, but he couldn’t because of his condition as a special-needs person and what was only available to him back in 2008.
This season we will have close to 100 players, and that’s an all-time high for us. We are playing two games every Saturday and every Sunday this year beginning next Saturday. That kind of schedule will make it easier for our parents to be able to bring their child to one of those two days, or to both if that’s what they want to do.
We have a total of eight teams, and we have 100 buddies who are ready to assist our athletes during those games.
Novotney: Some people believe the Miracle League is only for children, but that is far from the truth, right?
McCardle: The Miracle League is for everyone who wants to come out and play.
One thing that is so wonderful is that we now have over 20 players who are 20 years old or older, and we have a player who is 81 years old. Age does not matter, but I do not care about age, so I can them all my kids, and so many of them have never, ever had this opportunity during their lives.
We started the Miracle League with baseball, but we have so many more things that are coming this year and beyond for every single person who wishes to participate.
Novotney: Will the Miracle League’s new partnership with the J.B. Chambers YMCA allow for many more opportunities for those who wish to do more than play in the games at the Miracle Field?
McCardle: That new partnership is going to open up many more activities and opportunities for the special-needs people in this entire Upper Ohio Valley. Adam Shinsky and I have had several meetings, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to have a camp that includes a lot of different activities. We’ll have sports activities at the field and at the YMCA, and we’re also looking at doing some art or drama or whatever ideas we can pull off for the members.
There are probably a lot of people who do not realize it, but the summertime can be a boring time for those with special needs because it’s not as easy for them to go to the pool and facilities like that, but with this partnership we will be able to give these people a lot of different things to do this summer.
I’m hoping that with the YMCA’s help we can offer a lot of different activities three days per week, and if we can develop that kind of program, it will be awesome for our members and their parents because those days will be jam-packed with activities that they have never had the chance to do in their lives.
Novotney: You held Registration Day for the Miracle League this weekend. The season begins on June 13, and then you have a special event scheduled for a little later this month. Tell me about that.
McCardle: We have our football and cheering clinic coming up on June 23, and they will be on the football field on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University. Mike Young from Wheeling Central has really spearheaded this effort, and we will have players from Central’s team there to help our athletes during all the drills and instruction that Coach Young has planned.
We’ll also have players and coaches from Wheeling Park and also from Weir High. And this year, the players and coaches from John Marshall will also join us, so we are growing by leaps and bounds, and that’s the best part about it all. More and more special-needs athletes are getting involved, and so are many members of our community.
For the cheering part of the clinic, we will have Wheeling Central’s coaches and cheerleaders participating, and we’ll also have the staff and cheerleaders from Wheeling Park, so on both ends of this clinic we are really bringing the community together to give our athletes experiences they’ve never had the chance to experience before in their lives.
And the fact we are going to do these clinics on an actual football field is going to make it even better for the participants because, again, it’s something they’ve never had to chance to do before in their lives. That’s what our Miracle League is all about.
Novotney: This all started because your son, Austin, wanted to play football. When did you come to realize that Austin would be a special-needs member of our community?
McCardle: When Austin was born, he was perfect. He was eight pounds, had all his fingers and toes, a perfect head. Nothing seemed to be wrong at all. The first time we wondered if something was up was about six months after he was born, but then we were told that every child progresses differently.
But then at nine months, we were still concerned, and that’s when we the visits to doctor after doctor began. And it seemed as if every specialist had their own diagnosis, and that was very frustrating for our family.
It wasn’t until Austin was 5 years old before we really knew it was a nervous system ailment known as Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease. That’s when we had our answer. That’s when we knew what we had to do to try and make his life better.
We know there’s no cure. We know that it’s something that could get worse over the years, and it has gotten worse the past couple of years.
Novotney: What is Austin’s future?
McCardle: He needs to be always as mobile as possible, and he will need therapy continually. If he stops, his body will stiffen up to the extent that he wouldn’t be able to walk. Right now, he can get around pretty well with his walker, but if he stops, then he could become wheelchair bound.
But as it is, writing doesn’t exist. He cannot use utensils. He does speak, but some people appear to have a hard time understanding him because there is a delay with his speech.
Novotney: Your efforts with the Miracle League have gone beyond Austin, in a way, because you have come to care about this community you have built. At least that’s the impression I have. Is it accurate?
McCardle: It’s is, and it’s awesome.
It’s been a wonderful experience. I believe God has always had this plan for me. If I had never had Austin – a child with special needs – I would never have taken this path, and my eyes would have never been opened. I know it’s hard for someone who doesn’t have a child with special needs to understand what this life is about, but I have learned that every one of our Miracle League children are fighting a different battle, and their families are struggling with it in different ways.
Our parents now talk to each other about their situations, and the only thing that’s the same with all of them is that it’s a 24-hour-a-day job to care for their children. It breaks my heart in one way, but I am so happy that these children have such wonderful parents.
I want to know who these kids are. When we get new members to the Miracle League, I like to have a one-on-one relationship with them and their families, and that’s allowed us to become a family. This Valley is a very, very special place.
Novotney: You have created a community in which all these families can help each other, have you not?
McCardle: I do like for all of the families to know each other since we are gathering at the same place so often, and that’s allowed these family members to help each other with waivers and programs and things like that. Not too long ago, all of these families were left on their own to figure all of this stuff out all by themselves.
The more we stand as one family together, the more we can make the changes that need to be made.
Novotney: It is not only the parents who have relationships, but also the special-needs athletes.
McCardle: Yes, they do.
And the more they are together, the more they get to know each other. And because we have such a great buddy program, our athletes are getting to know other athletes who are not special needs, and that’s something that’s never happened in any community in this country. All too often people with special needs have been separated, but that’s not the case with the Miracle League, and that means miracles are happening for everyone involved.