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‘Breaking down barriers’: How a softball event brought together elite players, people with disabilities
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Players from Just People Inc., a program for high-functioning adults with developmental disabilities, take part in one of three softball games hosted by Triple Crown Sports and the Beautiful Lives Project at Fowler Park on Sunday, July 14, 2019. - photo by Ben Hendren

Lots of players, beeping softballs and a carnival atmosphere made Sunday at Fowler Park a day unlike any other.

Ahead of this week’s Triple Crown Sports USA Nationals softball tournament, Triple Crown teamed with the Beautiful Lives Project and local groups to host a special softball event followed by a carnival with food, games and inflatables at Fowler Park on Sunday.

“Here at this event today we have individuals who have autism, individuals who are blind and have other individuals with special needs playing with the TC USA Nationals put on by Triple Crown Sports,” said organizer Bryce Weiler, with the Beautiful Lives Project, a nonprofit that gives those with disabilities a chance to take part in events they might otherwise not be able to.

Weiler, who is blind, said he had contacted several local groups to take part in the event and was pleased with the “great turnout.”

“It’s been really great having all the players come out and take time from their games, especially when they’re so busy and giving these participants the opportunity to play softball, which they’re not always able to do,” Weiler said, “and breaking down barriers, because at some point these high school athletes are going to be employed and finished college and they might have the opportunity to hire someone who has autism or is blind and hopefully give them the chance to live the best life possible and overcome their own obstacles and challenges.”

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Players from Just People Inc., a program for high-functioning adults with developmental disabilities, take part in one of three softball games hosted by Triple Crown Sports and the Beautiful Lives Project at Fowler Park on Sunday, July 14, 2019. - photo by Ben Hendren

Games were happening on three fields during the event: one for beep ball, a softball game for blind players using a beeping ball and bases; and two games of high schoolers assisting players with conditions such as autism.

“Any of the people [playing beep ball] have been blindfolded if they’re not blind, so they’re kind of getting to experience what it’s like to play without being able to see,” said Halie Martinez, a tournament director with Triple Crown. “On [the other] field we’re playing modified softball games. … It’s kind of similar to a normal softball game just having our teams interact with fielders, help them throw and get around the bases and cheer them on and make it fun for them.”

Martinez said the tournament will feature over 200 “top elite teams” in the country, including teams from Georgia, Florida, Texas and California. In addition to Fowler Park, the tournament, which will continue through Thursday, will have games at Forsyth County’s Sharon Springs, Bennett, Central, Coal Mountain, Midway and Sawnee Mountain parks and Alpharetta’s North Park.

Before the teams face off on the field, Martinez said they wanted to host an event for fun and a good cause.

“Tonight is our opening ceremonies and our player party, which is really our big kick-off to welcome all of our teams to the event, and we wanted to do a give-back this year to really help the community as well,” she said. “We really wanted to give some disability groups in the Forsyth County area the opportunity to come and play with our teams and give our teams the opportunity to give back and get to know and mingle with some of the players here.”

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Players from Just People Inc., a program for high-functioning adults with developmental disabilities, take part in one of three softball games hosted by Triple Crown Sports and the Beautiful Lives Project at Fowler Park on Sunday, July 14, 2019. - photo by Ben Hendren

Becky Dowling, executive director with Just People Inc., a program for high-functioning adults with developmental disabilities, worked as a coach of one of three teams the organization brought on Sunday.

She said the team is gearing up for their own season in preparation for the Special Olympics State Fall Games in Valdosta in October.

“We brought 60-something people, three teams of our individuals that are getting ready for our fall games for softball. It was kind of exciting for us to start our season at an event like this,” Dowling said. “The group loved it. It kind of helped us as coaches determine if we have them in the right spot. They enjoyed talking with players from the girls’ league. I thought it was a really nice event. I’d never been to anything like that before.”

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Players from Just People Inc., a program for high-functioning adults with developmental disabilities, take part in one of three softball games hosted by Triple Crown Sports and the Beautiful Lives Project at Fowler Park on Sunday, July 14, 2019. - photo by Ben Hendren

Through all of the organizers, there was a hope that the event would give both the high school and special needs players a unique experience and insight.

Martinez and Weiler personally know the value of such interactions, as they met as students at the University of Evansville in Indiana and have been friends since.

“I met Bryce on the bench of one of our men’s soccer games. I was an athletic training student and he was there standing on the bench. I introduced myself, and we’ve been friends ever since, which is how we kind of we organized this,” Martinez said.

“We knew each other in college, and I’d help him get lunches because he’s blind and we’d shoot baskets together and just have a lot of fun through college. It’s so much fun nine years later to come together and put together this event.”