By Stephanie Dolan
Running, skipping, jumping and playing … a part of childhood that many of us take for granted.
Some children, though, feel forced to sit on the sidelines as they watch others have the fun, unable to kick the ball, make the shot or run the bases. That is where Lead the Challenge (LTC) comes in, a softball league specifically designed to give children and young adults with disabilities the opportunity to participate in organized sports.
“Oftentimes, children with disabilities may have never had any experience with sports due to limitations they face regarding their certain disability,” LTC board member Dustin Gilmer said.
Lead the Challenge is based in Franklin Township.
“There are various different disabilities represented within our league,” Gilmer said. “They range everywhere on the spectrum from different sensory disabilities, auditory disabilities and physical disabilities. Some of the kids who participate were born with autism, Down syndrome, ADD or ADHD. This year, we have our very first participants who will be playing who are visually impaired.”
LTC was founded in 1997 by Mike Black. It is now run by the board of directors, which includes Gilmer.
Leading the Challenge
“I come to the board as the only board member who has a disability,” he said. “I was an original player in the league back in 1997, when the league was first founded by Mike Black. My role is to help move the league forward by marketing, communications and publicizing league happenings, while also providing my knowledge from experience as a person with a disability.”
Gilmer is a graduate of Ball State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s of arts in Journalism and Telecommunications. He currently serves as the project manager for the Office of Disability Affairs for the city of Indianapolis. He was an LTC player for seven years.
“I was always interested in sports,” he said. “Being able to be a part of LTC allowed me to go to school and talk to my friends, who also played sports, about my games. It allowed me an opportunity to enjoy sports more than just from behind a TV screen.”
Gilmer said that team sizes vary from year to year, but that LTC has anywhere from four to six teams with eight to 10 players participating on each team.
“One other factor that goes into team size is the amount of peer players that we have sign up for that year as well,” he continued. “Peer players are what makes LTC unique. They are individuals, often peers of the players themselves, who volunteer to assist with various things during the season such as batting, fielding, throwing the ball, running the bases and even learning the game of softball as they go. Peer players are also tasked with ensuring that the players stay safe while participating.”
Gilmer said that being a part of the team allows peer players to see the disabled as no different than they are.
“They see that in a whole new way,” he said. “These kids might do things differently than they do, but they share some of the same interests, have goals and often build new friendships out of participating in LTC.”
Answering the call
Gilmer also said that being a member of the league brings the opportunity for the kids to be kids and experience sports in a small way like ordinary kids would. Parents are also given the opportunity to sit in the stands for their child’s games, which is something they would never have thought they’d be able to do before LTC.
“It definitely gives me the opportunity just sit in the stands and be a regular parent,” Amy Camp said.
Camp’s daughters, Grace, 17, and Emily, 16, both participate in LTC.
“A lot of times, with special needs kids, you have to be involved,” she continued. “So it’s just great to have that hour on a Sunday afternoon to just sit and watch your kids be able to participate with other kids in their own age group.”
Grace is autistic, and Emily has a seizure disorder. This will be their sixth year participating with LTC.
“I heard about it through a teacher at Franklin Township Schools,” Camp said. “Grace was nervous at first, but now she just loves it. Talking about it just makes her smile, and she gets so excited. Grace is hoping this year they’re going to be training her to be a peer next year. That’s one thing that the organization does, even if you have a disability. It’s a really nice pay it forward program. Not all peers are high school age, and some are kids with disabilities of their own.”
Camp said that Grace’s communication and social skills have improved dramatically in the time she’s participated in the league.
Living the dream
“As a parent, it means the world to me,” she said. “I would say to anyone considering signing their child up that everybody there is so friendly and welcoming. It’s a safe environment for your child. Come give it a try. You’ll really get to be a part of a fun event for a Sunday afternoon.”
“As a league, we do not focus on the outcome of any game,” Gilmer said. “Our league operates with no winners or losers in games. Every batter on each team bats every inning. We also do not keep score. The reason for this is because this is oftentimes the players’ first taste of any organized sport. So, we focus on helping the players understand their abilities and helping them enjoy the game.”
Gilmer said that anyone interested shouldn’t be nervous about playing – just come to a game!
“From there forward, they’ll want to get out there and swing the bat and run the bases as well,” he said.
And just like the kids he tries to inspire, Gilmer himself feels blessed to be a part of LTC.
“For me, it’s the opportunity to give back to a league that has provided a lot to me as a young kid with a disability,” he said.
Registration fees are $40 per player and $20 per peer player and go toward equipment players need such as bats, helmets and balls, as well as uniforms, trophies and awards. For more information on Lead the Challenge, visit the website at ltcsoftball.com or find them on Facebook.
5 Questions with Dustin Gilmer
Who or what inspires you? My parents. They taught me, despite my disability, to work and fight for anything that I want to accomplish. My dad once told me that just because you have a disability doesn’t mean the world owes you anything. You still have to go fight your best.
Is baseball your favorite sport? (If not, what is?) Baseball is my first favorite, followed by football.
What’s your favorite sports-themed movie? The Sandlot.
What position did you play when you were a member of the team? I loved to play catcher!
Do you have any pets? No, but I have a service dog named Carver.