When 10-year-old Carissa Garner first joined the Challenger Little League Division in Pine Bluff, she couldn’t walk due to her spina bifida.
“She came and she said she wanted to run like those other boys,” director Richard Brown said. “And now she went from a wheelchair to a walker, to braces and now she can get out there and run the bases.”
Garner, who is originally from Lonoke, now lives in Pine Bluff.
“Sometimes she uses her stroller still, but sometimes she throws that down and takes off running,” Brown said.
In Saturday’s game at Ed Brown Field, Garner had a hit and scored a run for her Simmons First National Bank team in the first inning. Relyance Bank sponsors the other team.
“All the money we generate is through those signs out there,” Brown said pointing to the sponsors along the outfield wall. “Simmons and Relyance Bank sponsor a team and donations.
“That’s how we make our money.”
The Challenger Division was established in 1989 as a separate division of Little League to enable boys and girls with physical and mental challenges, ages 4-18, or up to age 22 if still enrolled in high school, to enjoy the game of baseball.
The Pine Bluff Challenger League was established in 2007, and according to volunteer coach Bill Shepherd it was the first one for the state of Arkansas.
Shepherd, who is the head coach for the Relyance Bank-sponsored team, has been a volunteer since the league’s inception. His son, Dane, is one of the players.
“It took him about five years to throw it to first base,” Shepherd said. “What he wanted to do was get the ball, and instead of throwing it to first base, he get it and run to first base and put it in their glove.”
Dane, who was named after his grandfather, has Down syndrome.
“He loves it,” Shepherd said. “He has been reminding me all day. He doesn’t want to miss it.
“… It is a great program.”
Today, more than 30,000 children participate in more than 900 Challenger Divisions worldwide.
When Brown’s kids were 12, he took them to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. Before the championship game for the World Series, the Challenger Little League played a game.
“And I thought, we need this here in Pine Bluff,” Brown said. “It is a real good program. It is something this community needed.”
The registration fee for the Challenger Division is $16 per team, but one thing Brown said he was most proud of is: “We don’t charge these kids a dime.”
“You’ve heard of the Miracle League,” Brown said. “They charge enormous amount of money to play in that.
“We give them their jerseys, pants, or whatever they need.”
Volunteer umpire and Pine Bluff native Eric Edwards has been with the Challenger program since the beginning as well. He’s also been involved with Little League Baseball for 20 years.
“For the Challenger League, it is all about the kids,” Edwards said. “To give them the opportunity to play baseball like anybody else.
“It also helps them be active. Sometimes these boys and girls may not have that opportunity to be active.”
Edwards say he enjoys seeing “a smile on their face.”
Other volunteers include the “buddies,” who assist the Challenger players on the field. The “buddies” encourage the players to make plays themselves, however the buddy is always nearby to help when needed.
“The buddies are there just to protect them in the outfield,” Shepherd said. “Cause some of the kids can hit the ball pretty hard.”
In Saturday’s game, Arkansas-Pine Bluff softball head coach Tiffany Ansley as well as members of her team were on hand as volunteer “buddies.”
Shepherd said the UAPB baseball team volunteered last year and Brown said the Pine Bluff High football team is scheduled to volunteer for the final game in a week and a half.
The Challenger has two games left for this season.
“We don’t play but in the spring,” Brown said. “When it gets too hot, a lot of these kids can’t handle it.
“We try to get it in between rains, I guess.”