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GENERALScoring a home run for special needs children

Unhappy to see his little brother Faraz, who has Down's syndrome, simply watching while he played baseball, Faiz Mousa, 14, decided to set up a league where children with special needs could play the game

By Sangeetha Swaroop for Friday magazine
July 6, 2012
Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/GNM

As he swung his bat to face the first pitch on a pleasant, breezy evening, there was an unmistakable gleam in Faraz Mousa's eyes, determination shining through. Oblivious to the cheering crowd, he concentrated on the pitcher who was preparing to lob the ball. The moment it left the pitcher's hand, the 11-year-old boy with Down's syndrome swung and hit his first single.

As the crowd erupted, shouting, "Run, Faraz, run", he began making his way to first base. Although he was proud that his bat had connected with the ball, Faraz didn't reveal his excitement. Instead, the shy boy just nodded his head and gave a thumbs up to show his modest pride and happiness.

The occasion was the Annual Invitational Baseball and Softball Tournament held at the field in Al Quoz. The Dubai and Kuwait little-league teams were pitted against each other in the first match of its kind in the GCC.

The day had a festive, carnival-like atmosphere as families and friends of the players mingled with each other.

There was music in the background, as well as sizzling hot dogs and burgers to fuel the hungry players and their families.

Faraz's elder brother Faiz cheered him on. "Go for it Faraz,'' he yelled, pleased that his brother and the other special-needs children were enjoying the game. 

Realising a dream

What made the event even more inspiring is that the entire concept came from a dream Faiz had to see his brother, Faraz, play baseball.

"I strongly believe that every child - whatever his or her level of ability - should be given a chance to play the game,'' says Faiz. It was with this idea in mind that he met with the people at the Dubai Little League (DLL) earlier this year. Eventually, they set up a Challenger Division for children with special needs and organised a friendly game with a team from Kuwait.

"I've played baseball since the age of four in Atlanta, US - where I and my family lived before moving to Dubai - and for the past three years in Dubai," says Faiz, a Grade Nine student at Dubai American Academy.

"In our family, baseball is more than just a sport. It has evolved into a family activity and is a key part of our lives.

"Every weekend, when my youngest brother, eight-year-old Armaan, and I went out to play, Faraz came to watch and support us although he'd never played. Eventually I wondered why shouldn't Faraz be given a chance too?

"At home, my brothers and I spend a lot of time with each other," he says. "Any activity we do, we are in it together. It was ironic that the sport that holds such a special place in our lives was denied to one person only because he was born different.

"Every time I looked at Faraz, I thought he deserves to play ball too, to be out there in the field, and experience the joy of teamwork or the achievement of hitting a ball. It didn't seem fair that we got to do something while he couldn't.''

Faiz discussed the idea of setting up a baseball team for special-needs children with his parents, Mustaq and Shalini Mousa, who encouraged him to talk to his coach, Joe Lebrato.

He was a board member for Dubai Little League, and says his initial reaction to Faiz's idea was a "combination of obligation and a bit of uncertainty." DLL is a not-for-profit organisation, run entirely by volunteers. It's been in existence for over 20 years in Dubai, but an initiative of this kind had never been attempted before.

"While it is was something we knew we wanted and had to do, we also weren't quite sure what possibilities and limitations we would need to consider," Joe says.

"The league was established to provide baseball opportunities for all children in Dubai so it was important for us to include children with special needs and make sure they have a chance to play as well."

When it came time to make this idea a reality, the league looked to friends in Kuwait for guidance. "They were the first to establish a Challenger League in the Gulf and because of a long-standing relationship between the leagues, we were able to share knowledge and ideas," says Joe.

"Our biggest challenge, however, has been getting the message out to all special-needs children and their families that they are welcome to participate irrespective of their nationality, school affiliation or baseball knowledge."

Emails were sent out to all members of the DLL and there was an overwhelming response from people who wanted to volunteer. "We then put up flyers at various special-needs schools with the aim of getting many kids to register," says Faiz. 

The buddy system

Assembling all the kids and teaching them to do a sport they had never played before was not an easy task, Faiz says. "Some children would get hot and tired quickly while others couldn't participate either because of hearing difficulties or short attention span."

To overcome these difficulties, the Challenger Division works with the help of buddies, young teens who volunteer to help the players in all aspects of the game. A buddy is assigned to every special-needs player and shows them how to play. The volunteers are briefed on what to do and expect when dealing with a special-needs child, and how to handle unexpected situations on the field. "The buddies gain from this experience as they learn about the amazing abilities these children have, and it changes their perceptions," says Nannette Wicker, an occupational therapist and executive director at kidsFIRST Medical Center, who helps coach the buddies and the players.

"We advise the buddies to share, teach, listen, and most importantly, to get to know who they are rather than drawing conclusions based on their diagnosis.

Winning isn't the priority at DLL. The focus here is on the pure joy of playing the sport. No scores are kept. This is a level-playing field where every child is given the opportunity to hit the ball and score at least one run so they feel a sense of accomplishment.

"Quite often in team sports, a heavy amount of emphasis is placed on winning and losing a match," says Joe. "When coaching special-needs kids, the biggest difference is probably the fact that you take a completely different perspective on what is important in sports and life. These kids win every time they step on to the field to participate."

DLL's Challenger Division, which was created in February, is more than just a game of baseball. It's really about getting the children, who might never have played a sport before, involved.

Yacoub Al Wazzan, who hails from Kuwait, was born with Down's Syndrome and touching first base gave him an incredible sense of accomplishment.

Leah Wilsher, 11, cannot walk unaided, but that did not stop her from rounding second base with the help of her buddy.

Ten-year-old Zaid Bourahmah's timely catch earned him loud applause while nine-year-old Zane Little from Kuwait, was simply ecstatic to be on the diamond indulging in his biggest passion - baseball. 

A sense of belonging

The value of the Challenger Division goes beyond baseball as it has therapeutic and social benefits for the players. "It not only fosters team spirit and a sense of belonging, but to be a part of something bigger than yourself and be accepted is extremely beneficial for the kids," says Nannette.

John Jenkins, whose little girl Leah Jenkins has developmental delays, says, "I am from the UK and know nothing about baseball. But we were completely overwhelmed right from the first game. The buddies are brilliant and the game provides an opportunity for Leah to meet a wider group of people, some with special needs and others without.

"Leah is excited to hit the ball and run, often stopping midway to strike a pose when she sees a camera!"

Faiz and Faraz's father, Mustaq, agrees. "As a parent, the Challenger Division is the best thing that could have happened for us," he says.

"Baseball is an important part of our lives, and is the only sport our sons play. The highlight for us is that Faraz now has the same opportunity to play with his brothers every weekend at the ball park."

Faraz loves throwing the ball and thrives on the individual attention he receives. He attends the Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs in Dubai, but when he was living in the US, he attended a mainstream school.

"In Dubai, kids like Faraz do not get opportunities to interact with regular children in a typical surrounding," says Faraz's mother, Shalini.

"You go to a mall, and how many special-needs children do you see? Often, the child is stared at because people don't know how to react. It is not their fault; it is lack of exposure that is cause for such behaviour.

"So the games are one way of educating people, and I think we need more opportunities like this. It has made a difference in the life of every child who participates - both able-bodied and special-needs children."

The driving force behind the Challenger Division has been Faiz and his family, says Joe. "Faiz felt strongly about getting his brother involved in baseball and led the effort with the support of his parents.

"This teenager also showed great leadership and led all the practices and games, making sure that our first season was a success." 

Looking forward

Next year, DLL hopes to invite special-needs children from around the Gulf to participate in a year-end tournament. The league will work on developing a warm-weather programme that will take place inside a local gymnasium this summer.

Nannette remembers how a teen with Down's syndrome felt so frustrated with her peers' and adults' judgment of her abilities that she said, "I can't change, but you can."

"This is precisely what the Challenger League is about - changing perceptions and having fun," Nannette says.

Faiz agrees. "I am indebted to my little brother Faraz for teaching me life's most basic lesson - to never give up," he says. "Things don't come automatically to him as it does to us, but he keeps trying and that encourages me. He is my greatest inspiration."

Making a difference

Who: Faiz Mousa
What: Helping special-needs children participate in baseball
Where: Dubai
How: Setting up the Challenger Division especially for special-needs children who want to play

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