By Sue Moore
A Miracle Field was just a gleam in Dave Olson’s eyes until May 20, when he put a shovel in the ground to turn the first piece of sod in The Dome’s field in Schoolcraft. He was accompanied by a cohort of volunteers who also believed that every kid deserves the chance to play baseball, especially those with special needs.
This group from many different parts of Kalamazoo County has raised $750,000 of the estimated $1.1 million cost. A Miracle Field is a custom-designed field with a cushioned, rubberized surface to help prevent injuries. It will feature wheelchair accessible dugouts and a completely flat surface to eliminate any barriers to wheelchair users or visually impaired players. A buddy assists each Miracle League player onto the field and during the game cheers them on, and makes sure their time is enjoyable and safe while giving the players’ parents a break to enjoy the game. It is associated with a larger group of Miracle League fields across the United States.
“About two years ago, Olsen, a Vicksburg business owner, was in Grand Rapids and stumbled across a Miracle League game,” said Jud Hoff, president of the Southwest Michigan Miracle League (SMML) and co-owner of The Dome Sports Center. “Dave dreamed that we could build a Miracle Field in Kalamazoo, so he reached out to Bill Deming, the former Parks and Recreation Director for the City of Portage. Bill approached Josh Baird, my business partner, and asked if we’d heard of a Miracle Field. We had just purchased some property by The Dome on US-131, and we weren’t sure what we were going to do with it. So, Bill took us up to see a Miracle League game. About five minutes into it, I turned to Josh and said, ‘We have to do this.’”
Baird, SMML’s vice president, remembers that day well. “The joy and excitement on the kids’ faces and the difference that the Miracle League was making in the community was evident within minutes. So we decided to build a Miracle Field of our own to serve the kids in southwest Michigan who could benefit from this field. Our mission is to create an environment where every kid, regardless of their abilities, has the chance to play sports. We still have about $300,000 in fundraising to go, but we wanted to get started building that field of dreams when we did the groundbreaking in May. The Miracle Field will do so much for the Vicksburg, Schoolcraft and southwest Michigan area, bringing equity, unity and a community spirit that is so important right now.”
Olsen is the League Commissioner and on the SMML board. He talks about the time he and his wife, Kim, were watching their grandson play a game in Grand Rapids and saw a Miracle League game on the field next to them. “I saw this dad pushing a kid in a wheelchair to first base. I can’t describe the look on that dad’s and that kid’s face. Pure joy. I wanted to bring that joy here.” He said to Kim, ‘Why not us? Let’s do this.’”
Olsen said that so many kids are lucky to be able to play a sport. “They take it for granted that they can play. The Miracle League players don’t have the same luck that the other kids do. It takes them hours of prep just to get to the field. It’s not right that there’s this whole group of kids getting left out of sports. The Miracle League is going to change that.”
Lisa Anspaugh and Wade Rutkoskie, both of Schoolcraft, also serve on the League’s board. Anspaugh came to the group because she had a huge passion for baseball and softball. She and her husband played in college and coached their daughter and sons. “I’m so blessed to have able-bodied children, and if I can give kids the chance to experience the game we love so much, I have to do it. I’m so proud to be a part of the Miracle League and bring it to our community.”
For Rutkoskie, it’s all about giving back to the Schoolcraft community that he grew up in and still lives in today. “I’ve been a Little League coach for a long time, and there have been kids who wanted to play but it wasn’t safe for them. I felt horrible that they couldn’t play. As a school board member, I know that we have a fair number of kids here with special needs, and it will be great to serve them. When I saw the bond between the Miracle League players and their buddies, I couldn’t describe the joy. They were just playing baseball, but it was so much more than that.”
His wife, Cari Rutkowski, is on the board and handles marketing and public relations. “She does a great job at connecting all the dots and is the leader that makes all the other people look so good,” Baird said.
For Cari, it’s about making sure the organization is aligned with the goals and values of the Miracle League. She said, “It’s so important that people understand the focus and meaning behind the mission of this organization. It’s a true celebration of athletes of all abilities and ensuring they have the opportunity to play ball. For their parents, it’s experiencing the joy of watching their child play and being part of a team.” In Kalamazoo County alone, there are 4,600 kids who could benefit from the Miracle League. Kids in counties throughout southwest Michigan are welcome to play.
Hoff, Olsen, Baird, Rutkowski and Anspaugh have attracted plenty of help from board members that include Chris Sargent, head of United Way, Josh Will, Dr. Luchara Wallace, Eric Guerin, and Billy Gernon, Western Michigan University’s head baseball coach.
Teenagers have also gotten into raising funds. Bryce Hoff and Grace Cheatham from Portage Central and Jacob Baird, a Vicksburg High School senior, combined with students from Schoolcraft and Portage to form a Youth Board for the Miracle Field. They put canisters out in their schools and did fundraising events to help swell the coffers. They are in striking distance of their $10,000 goal.
Donations have come from far and wide but the SMML still needs funds to finish building the Miracle Field. To help support the cause and bring this dream to life, visit http://www.swmimiracle.org/donate.