Baseball Angels

Finding a dearth of extracurricular activities for special-needs children, one family created a sports team that teaches kids new skills and provides a support network for parents

The Angels Baseball521 (photo credit: JOSEPH LEIGH)
The Angels Baseball521
(photo credit: JOSEPH LEIGH)
Deborah and Johnny French, like most parents, have had their share of “code red” moments with their children at friends’ homes or in public places.
In a code red moment, such as an accident or meltdown, Deborah and her husband just have to take one look at each other and know that it’s time to leave; they’re in lockdown mode and just have to get to the car as quickly as possible.
The Tel Mond-based family made aliya five and a half years ago from London with their son, Henry, 10, who is on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), and their daughter Amariah, eight, who has Down syndrome and studies at a special school in Kfar Saba. The couple also has four-and-a-half-year-old twin daughters, Elisheva and Rafaella.
During an interview with The Jerusalem Post in her living room, Deborah recalls a recent code red when the family was vacationing in Eilat over Passover. She was in the pool with her children when nearby they saw a baby, in its grandmother’s arms, crying. When Amariah hears crying she tends to rush to the person’s side, typical behavior of someone with Down, Deborah says.
“She has a tendency to go for the hair and take a tug,” she says. Deborah rushed over to move her daughter away and remind her not to pull hair. But the grandmother was already incensed. Henry jumped between his mother and the woman and tried to explain his sister’s condition and that she didn’t understand that what she did was wrong. But painfully, Henry’s effort to protect his mother and sister fell on deaf ears.
“The mother came along and told me to get that thing out of the pool,” Deborah recalls. “That it shouldn’t be swimming in pools with other children.”
In the past, experiences like this would have traumatized the 34-year-old market researcher turned stay-athome mom, author and special-needs activist, who launched her first ebook in March, A Brief Moment in Time, a heartfelt and honest account of Amariah’s birth and her journey thereafter to raise her family.
“Now, you see, that’s like water off a duck’s back,” she says. Rather than getting frazzled or stressed, “we go into function mode. I don’t get flapped… it isn’t anything to be alarmed about. It’s life.”
Deborah and Johnny have learned that while it may feel safer as a special-needs family to stay at home in their comfort zone and avoid the outside world, their children can and should participate in regular activities just like any other children. However, when they tried signing Henry up for activities through the local community center in Tel Mond, they found that he was bullied by other kids, became frustrated and lost interest.
She started meeting other parents of children with ASD and other disorders and heard similar stories.
“We felt terribly alone when we made aliya,” says Deborah. “I didn’t get people staring at my daughter… however, I knew whose houses I could go to. I knew where I felt comfortable and where I didn’t. I don’t feel animosity about that anymore. What we really want to try and do is break down those barriers.”
Their local center offered no activities for children with special needs, so one year ago, Deborah decided to initiate one herself: a baseball team; one that would not emphasize winning, but rather be a place for boys and girls ages six to 11 with special needs to succeed and have fun. She says it’s the first baseball team for ASD and other special-needs youth in Israel.
Some parents thought baseball would be too challenging for ASD children, requiring too much athleticism and focus.
“At first I wasn’t sure baseball was the right game,” says Emmanuelle Gutterman, whose nine-year-old son, Ido, plays on the Tel Mond Angels. “It takes a lot of coordination. Maybe we’re reaching too high… but it worked out great.”
Deborah and Johnny first approached the Israel Baseball Association about coaching and sponsoring the team, but the organization wanted to charge families to join and their focus was on competition and building technique, they say. So instead they turned to the community center for support. Galit Tsarfati-Sasson, who oversees the sports activities at the center, says it covers the cost of the team using the facility at Beit Sefer Shelanu (“Our School”) in Tel Mond to play on Friday afternoons for one hour. The French family bought the equipment and team shirts, and because the coach, Josh Weiss, and his high-school and army-aged assistant coaches volunteer their time, the children play for free.
The team does not keep score, nor do they have other teams to compete against, so they generally split into teams each week and play against each other.
Henry says he enjoys batting most of all. “It makes me feel that I’m the best at it and it makes me feel that I’m excelling at it,” he says, adding that he has improved a lot since last year, when he did not know how to catch or throw the ball.
“In Grade 1 I had no friends but since I’ve learned, I have friends now… But this year I’m properly succeeding and I have lots of friends,” he says.
While the Tel Mond Angels started out as a team for children with ASD, it is now open to any child with special needs, and their friends and siblings who want to join. Two children have cerebral palsy, and others have ADHD or other social disorders. On any given week the team has between eight to 15 players, including one girl, with their parents making up a lively cheering section.
The practices always open with stretching and some running, and this particular warm, sunny Friday in April, when the team is celebrating its first anniversary, is no different.
AS THE Angels in their red-and-white shirts jog around the gym, their parents and siblings reach out their hands to give them a high five. Henry takes one lap with Amariah, who has come to cheer on her brother.
After the warm-up, which Weiss says is crucial to keeping the children’s focus throughout the practice, the energy is palpable. The team moves to the outside field to start the game. Tel Mond Local Council head Shlomo Ratzabi has come to make a speech and throw out the first pitches in honor of the team’s birthday. For the Angels, there is no “three strikes, you’re out” rule. The pitcher will throw the batter the ball until he or she hits it. When a child named Ro’i does not hit the ball the first few times, the coach and other players call out words of encouragement, until his bat strikes the ball and he runs to first base. When Jenny, a girl who uses a walker because of her cerebral palsy, walks to home plate and picks up the bat, Weiss calls out her nickname – “Jenny from the Block!” – as the crowd claps for her. When her brother gets a hit, their father pushes him in his wheelchair to the bases.
The interaction between parents and children is central to the success of the team, Deborah and Johnny emphasize. “Josh taught the kids to throw to their fathers,” says Johnny. “Some of the fathers were crying. They’d never played catch. That bonding between father and son is massive and it’d never happened before. It was the most beautiful thing to see.”
Sharon Keller says her son, Yarden, eight, who plays on the team and has pervasive developmental disorder, is not the competitive type and this team suits him. “He doesn’t know what the word is,” she says. Sharon appreciates the other parents she has met through the team, the support, advice and resources they provide for each other. They have even started a monthly support group, and so far they’ve met about three times.
Gutterman, another team mom, says she’d like to see other activities offered, not necessarily sports, but anything that can make her son Ido participate in a structured group, and where “he doesn’t feel like the underdog.”
“In any regular environment he’s not on top of the game, he’s not cooperating, he doesn’t follow the rules; 15 minutes into something he will leave,” says Gutterman. In this group, she says, because the kids all have special needs, she has noticed that they communicate better with one another.
When the team first got together, the coach says they were pretty uncoordinated and did not interact with one another very much. Over the weeks Weiss says he has seen great progress. He started out working one-onone with each player to teach the basics of throwing and catching, so that now they can play as a cohesive group.
“Now we do everything as a team,” Weiss says. “They’ve come a long way.”
Yossi Sapir, the head of the Tel Mond religious council, sponsored the celebratory refreshments at the anniversary game. His first time at a practice, he says he is happy to lend any support. “They’re our children,” he says, as the team runs laps and stretches nearby.
While Deborah recruited families for the team, she and Johnny also reached out to the local council’s social services coordinator for names of families with children with special needs to recruit them. Johnny says the coordinator gave them a list of about 10 to 15 children from around age three to 12 with special needs, but he says there are many more not on the council’s radar.
“Where are the other kids?” he asks. “They’re at home doing nothing. If the parents aren’t sending their kids to a specialist, they come home in the afternoon and have nothing to do.”
If they are signed up for a regular activity, the parents have to worry about sending a shadow or making sure the teacher provides them with adequate supervision.
“We saw the gap here and we wanted to try and do something for it. We’re finding kids all over the place,” he says.
AVI ELIYAHU, the head of the local center, says he is grateful to Deborah for advocating for the inclusion of special-needs children in the Tel Mond area, a field in which youth centers across the country are working to develop, he says. Modi’in, for instance, offers an afterschool program twice a week for children with ASD, and Ma’aleh Adumim offers afternoon activities for specialneeds children. Ramat Eliyahu, however, emphasizes integration, and works to bring special-needs children into regular activities.
While Tel Mond used to have one social group for special- needs children that met once a month, the children grew up and it was discontinued. Eliyahu aims to eventually integrate Tel Mond special-needs children into regular activities, so that there will be no separation. He also hopes to add more activities to the repertoire.
In April, the Frenches along with the center initiated a ballet class open to area boys and girls with special needs. Amariah is one of a handful of pupils in the class.
Families pay a discounted fee of NIS 150 per month for use of the local studio and the teacher’s fee. Deborah gushes over a photo of her daughter in a pink leotard and tutu doing a pirouette, face beaming, at the group’s first get-together.
The baseball team and ballet class fall under a banner organization the family started called Chai on Life, which includes a food delivery program Johnny coordinates for needy families in Tel Mond.
For now, the Frenches plan to focus on developing the baseball and ballet groups, and eventually add more activities.
Key to starting a new group for special-needs children is preparing them for the experience. Deborah learned when Henry was in kindergarten that he understood best when she explained concepts, or “the scenarios that could work and the scenario that didn’t work,” through drawings.
“There were no words,” she says of her attempts to communicate with her son earlier on. “It didn’t make a difference. He couldn’t grasp anything I was saying.
Now I don’t have to draw. Now I can talk to him and he understands.”
As such, Deborah created the short book When Words Fail for the families who signed up for the baseball team, distributing them about a month before the first gathering.
It explains through drawings how to play baseball, showing successful scenarios and less successful ones.
Hagit Hajaj, whose son Ziv, 10, plays on the team, translated the book into Hebrew for native Hebrewspeaking families. Hajaj says Ziv used to play on a “regular” baseball team, but found that there was very little tolerance for his differences.
“They have a real sense of success and they also teach the kids how to clap their hands and be happy for others,” she says.
Shachar, 10, was afraid to join the team, his mother, Liraz Silberberg, says. “Everywhere he goes he never gets along with other kids. They laugh at him,” she says, because he cannot read and write. “You cannot understand how a child can go through all those things.”
At the first practice Shachar ran out of the gym, she recalls. But Henry ran after him. Silberberg watched from the sidelines as Henry encouraged Shachar to return. “You don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “All the kids here are special. Also, if you don’t succeed we’ll help you.”
AFTER TAKING his turn at batting, Shachar runs over to his mom and gives her a hug. “I love it,” he says. “It’s very nice.”
After her success with Henry using drawings to communicate, Deborah sought out a publisher to create a children’s book utilizing the method. But the publisher was more interested in her personal story. She jumped at the chance, eager to give an honest account to families with children with special needs and families who don’t understand, and tell it like it is.
“It was such therapy. It was so raw that I figured I had the opportunity to just tell people what it’s like,” she says.
The book opens with Deborah, at 25, in the hospital just after giving birth to Amariah. She knows something is not right with her infant, but she doesn’t know what exactly, and the doctors and nurses keep reassuring her everything is fine. When she realizes what it is, still no one will listen to her.
“I had to tell the doctors that she had Down syndrome.
I had to battle with them,” she says. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life. Even when I said it they thought I was mad.”
The shock was enormous. “Everything was just ripped from under me,” she recalls. Deborah left her business after her daughter was born to devote her time to her children.
Her memoir chronicles Henry’s diagnosis at two and a half with ASD, the supposed misdiagnosis of ASD, and finally, at age five, when Deborah was told with certainty that her son was on the spectrum. This came as a relief, she says, because now she knew how to proceed.
After taking Henry to see neurologists, therapists and other doctors, and working with Henry extensively at home on communication and social skills alongside her husband, Deborah now feels confident that she knows what her son needs and what makes him tick. That doesn’t mean life isn’t still a daily challenge for the Frenches, but Deborah says she now considers it all a blessing because it allowed her to slow down.
“It gave me a real relevance,” she says. “It gave me an importance to know what’s genuinely real. I’m happy for that. Maybe I would have just driven through life, just not seeing really. Thinking I was seeing, but not seeing.”
Her ebook hit Amazon, Cobra Books, iTunes and Barnes and Noble last month, and organizations for families with special-needs children and parenting websites have already recruited her to blog for them, baring her soul and sharing advice, which she has begun in earnest there and on her own website. She also says she has a few conceptual ideas for future books.
“I want people to know what it’s like to be a family with special needs. You feel alone. You feel ashamed, you feel isolated, embarrassed,” she says.
People are connecting with her story. She hopes the book eventually makes its way to government officials who can make changes toward removing the stigma of special needs and lend support.
Deborah would also like to see Chai on Life and its model of the Tel Mond Angels and the ballet class spread to other cities in Israel. She believes it can empower communities, and grant much-needed strength to parents like her, who need to know they are not alone.
“I’m not in a position to go out and establish it elsewhere,” she says. “They have the strength to do it.” For now, though, the Frenches have their hands full raising their children and maintaining the weekly groups.
“I still have masses of school meetings, fights, therapists, arguments, stress, education, awareness to do in my own home,” says Deborah.
Ambitious by nature, she always wanted to work again, to be able to contribute creatively. But she says she has come to see that her greatest creations are her children, and the writing and work with Chai on Life are just the cherries on top.
“It took me a long time to realize that what we’d actually created together is enough of a creation to be happy and to feel successful in life,” she says. “This is just a bonus. This whole ride is a bonus; a painful one, but a bonus.”