ANTIGONISH: In the midst of a successful run here, Challenger Baseball is growing.

Strait Area String Challenger Baseball Association Coordinator Dean Marchand has been involved with the program in Antigonish, as well as at St. Andrew Junior School, for the past seven years, and wants to expand into Port Hawkesbury, and beyond.

Marchand said he has been in contact with Port Hawkesbury Deputy Mayor Jason Aucoin, and Strait Area Sting Baseball Association President Shane Richards is a member of the group, as well as Natalie Stevens, with the Strait Area Chapter of Autism Nova Scotia.

“The reception has been awesome. Jason booked a time for us already at the field; he’s reserved a time for an hour, so it’s going to be one hour a week for approximately eight to 10 weeks to start,” Marchand said.

Marchand made a virtually presentation to Port Hawkesbury Town Council on May 10, outlining the program, and the group has its charter, through Baseball Canada.

“We went through the process now of becoming an actual association and we’re involved with Baseball Canada, Little League Canada, and the Jays Care Foundation. The Jays Care Foundation does a lot in terms of sponsoring,” stated Marchand. “In Antigonish, we were selected for one of the Field of Dreams, there’s $250,000 from them to build a fully accessible fall field. If this comes off the ground successfully in the Strait area, that’s something we can apply for eventually, to make a ball field there a little more accessible.”

Marchand said the program allows players to become part of a team, and provides a variety of options for children of varying abilities. In addition to the obvious health benefits of fresh air, sunshine, and exercise, he said this gives participants an opportunity to socialize.

“Challenger is a program that provides opportunities for children that have either cognitive or physical disabilities,” he noted. “They structure it based on the abilities of children… some might in a wheelchair and their Buddy will help them run the bases or swing the bat. Some of the players that have cognitive abilities, they have the Buddy that might help learn rules of the game or swing the bat.”

Each volunteer Buddy is able-bodied and assists players, Marchand said, noting they are essential for the program.

“It’s not structured as a game; there’s no strikes, there’s no running the bases, or taking runs, just being involved,” he said. “They might be pushing the wheelchairs around the base path, or holding the bat to help them swing, protecting for a player from a batted ball.”

Marchand said they are currently waiting for their first shipment of equipment through the Jays Care Foundation.

“They’ll be sending baseball equipment, adaptive equipment that we can use; it might be soft balls, or gloves that have Velcro on them, so the children will be able to catch and feel what it’s like to catch, tennis racquets instead of bats, and soft bats as well,” he said.

With an anticipated start time of mid-June, Marchand said the group will be spending the next few weeks finding volunteers who want to be a Buddy.

“And the goal is registration will be covered through the Jays Care Foundation so it won’t cost the players anything,” he said. “It’s been life-changing for myself.”

The season will conclude with the 2022 Provincial Challenger Baseball Jamboree in Pictou County on Saturday, Aug. 13, noted Marchand. He said the 2023 provincial jamboree and the 2024 Atlantic jamboree are scheduled to take place in Antigonish.

“We’ll be invited to go up there for a day, participate with all other Challenger programs,” he said. “

And not just Port Hawkesbury, Marchand added the program is open to players from Richmond and Inverness counties.