Miracle workers

A St. Petersburg, Florida, Builders Club pitches in to help special-needs kids, seniors and veterans. 

Story by Julie Saetre | Photos by Eve Edelheit

For the usually balmy state of Florida, the March morning air in St. Petersburg was downright chilling, and the group of adults and children gathered at Walter Fuller Park snuggled into sweatshirts and heavy jackets. Among them, 18 members of the Seminole Middle School’s Builders Club spread out on Miracle League Field, ready to help special-needs students enjoy a spring morning on the baseball diamond.

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And this wasn’t a one-off commitment. The Seminole Middle School Builders Club devotes some 200 service hours during each nine-month school year to help kids with physical and mental disabilities, offer companionship to seniors in a memory-care residency and honor military veterans, among other projects.

“I love making my community a better place for other people,” says member Aubrey, a sixth grader. 

This hands-on dedication to service is so embedded in the club that retired teacher Deborah Love returned to her former role as advisor when school administrators came calling.

“These kids are so loving, giving and precious in their commitment that it’s such a feel-good experience in my life,” she says. “Being around people like that who really want to do service and who treasure the things you do — it feeds my soul.”

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The Miracle League of Pinellas County’s spring season spans March and April. Builders Club members join Kiwanians from the Seminole Kiwanis Club and other area volunteers to make each Saturday morning at the ballpark special for the athletes of honor. And honored they are. For its 16-year existence, Miracle League Field has been reserved for its special-needs guests and their families. In 2018, the field’s original rubber-tiled surface was replaced with a smooth AstroTurf version, ensuring easy mobility for kids on foot and in wheelchairs.

After the athletes register and exchange hellos and hugs, the ballplayers divide up by age group and are assigned a spot on either the Tampa Bay Rays or the Chicago Cubs team. (The field is funded in part by former Rays and Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s Respect 90 Foundation and the Tampa Bay Rays, as well as the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation.)

Before the “play ball” command is given, everyone lines up on either side of the diamond while Matthew Walker, a longtime league member now in his early 20s, belts out the U.S. national anthem from his wheelchair. One of the league’s many success stories, Walker, who has cerebral palsy, launched the annual Miracle by the Bay fundraising event in 2018 to support individuals with special needs.

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As play begins, the Builders Club members spring into action. Every player gets the chance to bat at least twice, either at a pitched ball or off a tee. Builders Club members help the players steady and swing the bat. They guide players around the bases, either by hand or by pushing wheelchairs. Some club members head to the outfield, helping the young athletes catch and return balls. And all offer the gifts of support and friendship.

“Volunteering at Miracle League is one of the most rewarding experiences one can participate in,” says eighth-grader Savannah, the Builders Club president.  “You develop strong friendships with the parents and their kids.  Throughout the entire game, you cannot help but smile.”

“My experience in Miracle League has taught me that we are all human,” adds Liam, a sixth grader and the club’s vice president. “Every person has a special gift.”

Games only last a few innings, long enough for all athletes to play.  No one ever calls a ball or a strike. And every game ends in a tie.

“Why?” says George Stone, the Seminole Kiwanis Club member who spearheaded the Pinellas County Miracle League in 2006.  “Because they all hit, run and have fun playing ball. That’s all we need.”

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He’s seen some striking transformations among the hundreds of athletes who have graced Miracle League Field over the years.

“I had a 16-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair all her life. She came up to home plate one day, stood up, hit the ball and ran to first base. Her answer was, ‘I can’t play ball sitting down.’ Another child who had never spoken a word in his life now talks, sings and tells jokes. My kids are doing things now I never expected to see them do. Their friends say, ‘You can’t play baseball.’ Their answer is, ‘Come on out and watch me.’”

Baseball isn’t the only sport the Seminole Builders Club makes possible for special-needs children. They also help with the Seminole Kiwanis Club’s Horses 4 Handicapped program in the fall and winter months. Kids with disabilities saddle up on gentle horses trained specifically for this duty. A Builders Club member flanks each rider, holding onto the child’s leg and the stirrup as a “side walker.” 

“Even if they lose their balance, the rider can’t fall out of the saddle,” explains Love. “We can help them get back into position.”

Club members decided where to target their efforts after conducting a community survey. The results led them to prioritize special-needs individuals, the elderly and veterans. 

Other ongoing projects include monthly visits to members of a memory care residence, in-person card deliveries to a veteran’s hospital and visiting a veterans’ cemetery to place wreaths on graves and clean the grounds.

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The sixth and eighth graders who join the club bring a variety of life experiences, Love says.

“We have a rather large gifted population at Seminole Middle School, and a lot of those kids choose to become involved. They have a heightened awareness of how fortunate they are, which leads them to feel that they have a real responsibility to give back. They are very aware that their special needs could easily be on the other side of the spectrum.”

Some club members come from disadvantaged families, so they recognize the importance of service to those in similar situations. 

“It’s so important for them to be able to give back because of their own circumstances,” Love says. “I think it’s remarkable. And that part of their character development is really, really important.”

That character once again was on full display when a K-Kids member was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In response, Builders Club members decided to create 50-plus “hospital dolls.”

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Each doll has a tiny incision in one shoulder, under which is inserted a water-bottle cap to represent the port system young patients often need for treatment. Doctors at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg use the dolls to help children understand what they will experience. Members hoped that their K-Kids friends would each receive a doll to help with their hospital stay.

Says Love, “It just illustrates what beautiful souls these children have.”

The Builders Club members, however, say they are the ones who most benefit from their Kiwanis family experience.

“I love leaving at the end of the day knowing that I helped improve someone’s life,” says eighth-grader Amelia.

Adds Liam, “My experiences in Builders Club have taught me, through helping the community, there’s always a reward for giving back.”

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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