A true field of dreams
The Hawk Eye - 7/5/2018
July 05--KEOKUK -- Corey Samuels just wanted his two sons to be like other children, if only for a short time.
Samuels was beginning to doubt that would ever happen. His sons, Hunter and Austin, would never get a chance to play baseball, to be members of a team, to run and play with other children, to feel normal, to feel like they belonged.
Samuels' children were born with autism or autism spectrum disorder, which refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
Samuels has fond memories of playing baseball when he was young, interacting with other kids, enjoying the virtues of teamwork, feeling like he was part of something bigger than himself, feeling like he belonged.
He wanted nothing more than to have Hunter and Austin enjoy the same game he grew to love growing up, to be able to have the feeling of putting on a uniform and ballcap, swing a bat, throw a ball and well, just have fun.
Only it began to seem like a pipe dream.
Samuels refused to give up on his dream. He came up with the idea of forming a tee-ball team for children with special needs. So he put together a team and used the name "Mancountry," an organization he and nine others in town formed to help raise funds for various projects in and around Keokuk.
And just like that, the dream became a reality. Hunter and Austin Samuels were joined by 11 other children with special needs to play on the Mancountry tee-ball team, which played against other tee-ball teams in the area.
It turned out to be more than Samuels ever imagined. Crowds of up to 70 people turned out to watch and cheer on the Mancountry team and share in the joy. For the first time in their lives, the kids who never thought they would get a chance to play baseball did just that. Friendships were formed. Memories were made. And when it was over, more than a few tears were shed.
It was a dream come true.
"After our last game there were a lot of tears shed, but just to see the smile on my sons' faces was just priceless," Samuels said. "At the end it was about all 13 of them. It was good for everyone. We made sure everyone got a hit and they got to throw the ball. It was just so neat."
"It was Corey's dream to get his sons on a team and let them play tee-ball, to do something positive for the kids and the community," said Matt McGhghy, whose son, Bentley, 7, was born with cerebral palsy.
Samuels knew he would need more than a little extra help in putting together a tee-ball team of special needs kids. So he turned to K-Play, a foundation formed by McGhghy to bring playground equipment to the city specially designed for special needs children. It was a match made in heaven, and the ball started rolling.
"Corey offered Bentley a chance to fulfill his dream of playing baseball and he was gracious enough to let us on the team," McGhghy said.
Other issues had to be addressed. Some of the special needs children were too old to play tee-ball and there was the problem of finding teams to play. Those needs were met early as all kids were allowed to play on the Mancountry team, and other tee-ball teams in the area were more than willing to play against Mancountry.
Then there was the issue of parents and how they would accept Mancountry. That proved to be the easy part, as well as an eye-opener for all involved.
"When we first started there were concerns we had about the older kids and how they would be accepted," McGhghy said. "Other teams were very sympathetic. They were able to look past the disabilities and allow the kids to just have fun and fulfill their dreams of playing baseball."
"Mancountry said they would sponsor us on one condition -- that you had to have special needs to be on the team," Samuels said. "It's a little nerve-wracking for parents because they don't want their kids to be a distraction for the other kids. It was kind of neat. At first I would talk to the crowd before the game and tell them what was going on. By the end of the year, the other parents were coming up talking to me."
Bentley McGhghy spends most of his time in a wheelchair. But during games, either Matt or his wife, Nicole, would hold Bentley at the plate and help him swing the bat. They would take turns running the bases with Bentley in their arms and would carry Bentley when Mancountry was in the field.
"Nicole and I would get out their with him and put his AFO braces on and let him grip the bat," Matt McGhghy said. "Nicole and I would run the bases with him. Bentley played shortstop and batted fifth or sixth in the lineup. Everybody would go out in the field to assist their kids."
Samuels carried Hunter around on his shoulders during games. There was no place else Hunter would rather be, and Corey almost feels naked without Hunter on his shoulders.
"That's his safe spot. That's where he feels safe, above all the noise and commotion," Corey Samuels said. "It's a really neat feeling seeing your sons smile and have fun playing with other kids."
Samuels said he and his wife tried to get Hunter and Austin onto other tee-ball teams, to no avail. Mancountry proved to be a saving grace to the Samuels, McGhghys and other families dealing with children who have special needs.
"We tried to play on other tee-ball teams, but it didn't go real well. It was really heartbreaking to my wife and I," Samuels said. "For some of these kids it was the first time they ever got to wear a uniform. And by the end we had 60 to 70 people in the stands watching and cheering. The support was just unreal."
Mancountry in Keokuk will have raised over $20,000 by the end of July, money which goes to support different organizations in and around Keokuk. Mancountry doesn't keep a penny of the money earned. It all goes back to the community to make Keokuk a better place to live.
The McGhghys bought popsicles for the players on both teams after every game. Former Cincinnati Reds great Pete Rose even sent a video message to the Mancountry team.
Players and parents from all the teams became friends, got to see life through a different set of eyes, could sympathize with what others were going through. And tee-ball brought them all together to share a common bond.
It started out as a longshot, something Samuels never thought would ever happen. It truly was a dream come true.
"Bentley is growing up. He's getting tall," McGhghy said. "Bentley enjoys baseball. To see him smile and playing ball with his buddies and just having fun was great. It was a great opportunity for Bentley and all the other kids. It was good for the parents on the other side to see that all these kids are people, too. They don't need to be treated any differently. We can all get along. It was a great time."
"This was a dream I made myself forget because I just assumed it would never happen and now it's happening," Samuels said. "For 40 minutes they felt like they were just like everybody else."
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