Baseball is the national pastime but for children with disabilities it can be difficult to get involved with local teams. However, a local league offers children with special needs the opportunity to hone their skills and, more importantly, to just have fun.

The Challenger League is designed specifically for children ages 5 to 18 who have special needs and may not be able to compete at the regular little league level and is open to all Darien and New Canaan residents.

Challenger League Co-Director Annmarie Medwid said the program has been around since 1999 when the current commissioner and head coach Charlie Santos-Buch's children got involved with the league as "buddies," Medwid said. Buddies are volunteer high school students, some who play baseball and some who don't, who attend the practices, clinics and games to help the players develop their skills, Medwid said.

"The buddy system has really caught on at the high school because we started out actively recruiting there but now everything seems to be by word of mouth," Medwid said. "We like to get the buddies early on so they can commit to four years with the league."

Challenger League Co-Director Beth Siemers, who has a son who volunteers with the league, said the volunteers enjoy the time they spend with players.

"The buddies are always happy to be there," Siemers said. "It's very cute to see a six-foot senior holding hands with a little girl who just wants to play duck-duck-goose for an hour."

The buddies also provide a level of safety for the players so no one gets struck by a stray ball, Medwid said.

Medwid said there is a waiting list of about 30 students who want to volunteer their time with the Challenger league.

Since its inception, the Challenger League has seen its roster grow to 28 participants this year, Siemers said.

"We had 20 participants for the winter and now we have about 28 who want to play this spring," Siemers said. "During the winter we meet in the Town Hall gym and some of the kids really like it because we have different stations set up where they can play soccer or floor hockey."

The winter portion of the season runs from January to March and is used to hone the skills of participants, Medwid said. The regular spring season begins in April and runs until the end of school in June.

Since the league has so many participants this year, the kids were divided into two teams based on their age, Medwid said.

"Having to split the players into two teams is a good thing because it means the program is becoming more popular," Siemers said.

This year the teams will be divided into a group of 5 to 10 year olds and another group of 10 to 18 year olds, Medwid said.

"The older team will be designated the travel team and they'll go to away games in other towns and host games at McGuane Field," Medwid said. "Some of the parents liked the idea that the younger team will focus more on skill building and not have to travel."

Even though the Challenger League was designed to give kids with disabilities the chance to play baseball, the program doesn't just benefit the kids.

"It's very important to have a program like this because of the limitations for special needs kids," Medwid, who's son has been participating in the league for eight years, said. "Parents are always looking for opportunities like this to get their kids involved."

Siemers said parents have approached her to say how much they appreciate the work that goes into the Challenger League.

"The Challenger League gives parents a chance to just talk and hang out," Siemers said. "They don't have to actively be engaged and they can just watch kids play baseball and have fun."

Both Siemers and Medwid said the program offers parents a break from having to constantly watch their kids and they hope the time parents get to spend together builds comraderie.

Debbie Latham has a son, Michael, who participates in the Challenger League and had nothing but praise for the entire program.

"It is such an amazing program and everyone puts so much time into making it happen," Latham said. "My son absolutely loves it."

Latham said her son has had the same buddy, Cammie Kirby, for two years and she was thrilled with how patient and kind Kirby is to her son.

"For a lot of the children who tried the regular league it doesn't always work out as well because they can't get the one-on-one instruction they need," Latham said. "The Challenger League gives each player the attention they need and it's just great to see the smiles."

Colleen Lyons has a 7-year-old son, Tripp, who participates in the Challenger League.

"The league is so fabulous and it's a benefit to the kids with needs and the buddies," Lyons said. "It's the highlight of the week for Tripp."

Lyons said her son is in a power wheel chair and the opportunity to be a part of a team is fantastic.

"It's really important for these children to be a part of something and Tripp has something that is all his own," Lyons said.

One of Tripp's favorite aspects of the Challenger League is during the winter when he has the opportunity to play floor hockey and be the goalie, Lyons said.

"Tripp loves playing floor hockey because both of his older brothers play hockey for the Darien youth league," Lyons said. "Sometimes he would rather play goalie then hit a ball around."

Santos-Buch said the league is something he is very passionate about and Darien has one of the largest Challenger Leagues in the state, if not the country.

"I feel really proud because other Challenger programs like basketball and soccer have been started as a result of what we have done," Santos-Buch said. "A few years back, these kids wouldn't have had the same opportunity."

Santos-Buch said he is glad the players have an opportunity to feel like they are a part of a team.

"The kids we have are fantastic and even though the age range is 5 to 18, as far as I'm concerned they can stay as long as they want," Santos-Buch said.

As an added bonus of giving special needs players the chance to play and hone their skills, some of the participants will migrate into the regular little league program, Santos-Buch said.

"This is a program that I think will be going on forever," Santos-Buch said. "Other towns like Stamford have started their own programs because of us."

Even as the league continues to grow in popularity, Siemers and Medwid said the league is looking for more help.

"Charlie is probably going to transition out of the program at the end of this year and we're also looking for new head coaches and assistant coaches," Siemers said.

Despite having an influx of student volunteers, Medwid said the program could benefit from having more adult volunteers.

Operating a program like the Challenger League isn't without it's own challenges though as Siemers and Medwid addressed the difficulties with balancing a large roster.

"Most teams have a roster of 12 to 14 players and we have 28," Medwid said. "It can also be tricky to modify the program in such a way that it meets everyone's needs."

Having such a large number of participants is a good thing to Siemers and Medwid who hope to see the program continue to grow and to see the players and volunteers have fun.

"We don't keep score because it's all about having fun," Medwid said.

For more information parents can visit www.dybs.org or contact Charlie Santos-Buch at frozenrope8@optonline.net or directors Annmarie Medwid at ctmedwid@optonline.net and Beth Siemers at bsiemers@optonline.net.