Petaluma ball field dedicated for youth, adults with disabilities
Before the festivities for opening day started, Jennifer Richardson and a few of the Miracle League North Bay board members huddled up to soak in the moment Sunday.
After four years of navigating every hurdle imaginable, their vision for the region’s first special needs ballpark had finally been realized.
Now, there were hundreds of people filling the bleachers in Petaluma’s Lucchesi Park. A brand new playground for disabled children had been constructed. Signups were taking place onsite. Donors and curious residents walked the complex, marveling at its first-rate design.
“It was more than any of us expected, emotionally,” said Richardson, board president and co-founder of the local offshoot of the national nonprofit. “That, to me, was a really strong moment.”
More than 50 youngsters with mental or physical disabilities, joined by their so-called “buddies,” got to swing a bat and round the bases on a rubberized baseball diamond Sunday afternoon - most of them for the first time in their lives.
Many were swinging at balls tossed by retired San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky, whose career was cut short and throwing arm later amputated due to cancer. He gave the opening remarks after Arianna Lorher, who has cerebral palsy, moved the crowd to tears with her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Throughout the afternoon, parents and children were constantly coming up to Richardson, sharing a level of appreciation that she admitted she wasn’t fully prepared for.
“I had so many parents that came up to me were crying, thankful - the gratitude was overwhelming,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting it to be a fun day, but you forget they don’t have a place in the community to play.”
It’s that gratefulness from parents with special needs children that helped Richardson and the Miracle League North Bay win the 2019 Service to Youth award, which they will receive at the Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence tonight at Rooster Run Event Center.
In fact, that’s one of three awards the nonprofit will receive this month.
The Miracle League project, the first in Northern California, cost about $3 million, and was the product of a unique collaboration that saw construction rivals come together, and required buy-in from city officials that provided the site next door to the Petaluma Community Center.
Thanks to that cooperative approach, also tonight, the project will be receiving the 2019 Bridge Award from the Northern California Engineering Contractors Association, which highlights private-public partnerships that make a positive impact in the community. Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun will be receiving the award at the Rohnert Park Community Center.
“We just feel so honored,” Richardson said. “There’s no other word; we’re just humbled by this. You’re not doing this to win awards.”
And not to be outdone, Richardson’s son Liam, an ambassador for Miracle League who has embodied the project’s spirit since the outset, is set to receive the Humanitarian Youth Hero award from the Red Cross.
The first games will be played on May 4. So far, about 50 players have signed up, and Richardson said they won’t be turning anyone away. The deadline to join is Saturday. The league is also open to adults.
Miracle League is partnering with the Boys & Girls Club, who will be handling most of the day-to-day operations. Benito “Benni” Comma, a special education teacher and that helps manage the Special Olympics operation in Santa Rosa, has been brought on as program manager.
Blown away by the response to the first day the field, Richardson credited all the people who helped make it happen.
“We had all these angels that came together to pull this off,” she said.
(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)