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Outdoor Programs For Special Needs Families Create Fun Memories

ACTON (CBS) - A winter ski trip. A summer swim in a lake. These are activities that most families take for granted. However, for parents of special needs children, outdoor activities can be difficult to navigate. Difficult, but not impossible, thanks to some special local programs.


The 1989 movie classic "Field of Dreams" encapsulated the lore and love of baseball. Fast forward 18 years, and a very special field of dreams comes alive with players and spectators each Saturday through spring and fall.

It's the Joseph Lalli Miracle Field in Acton. The field features a rubberized surface, spectator stands and there is even a mini-sized replica of Fenway Park's Green Monster.

Joseph Lalli Miracle Field
Joseph Lalli Miracle Field in Acton. (Photo credit: Mary Blake - WBZ NewsRadio 1030)

Katherine Rose of Methuen has been taking her two daughters to the field for the past year-and-a-half.  Ten-year old Jessica has an auditory processing disorder and her 11-year-old sister, Alexis, is vision and hearing impaired. Alexis is learning to walk and use an iPad to communicate.

"We knew about it from other families, but we thought, oh, it's just too far from our house and then we started coming and we were like, why in the world did we complain about how far it was because it's totally fun. It's something my daughters can do together and Jessica really loves it," Rose told WBZ NewsRadio 1030.

She turned to Jessica and asked her, "Can you tell her what your favorite part of baseball is?" Jessica responded, "Um, running and batting."

Rose said that an added touch is the games' announcer.

"It's silly that it's just that one small thing but it makes you feel like you're actually at a real, you know, team and a real sport," she said.

Emily Fletcher is the Lalli Miracle field announcer.

"These kids, they love baseball, you know when they get up, when they start standing up, like, a lot of these kids couldn't walk when I started five years ago and now they're walking on their own. They're running around the bases. They're hitting the ball on their own, getting out of their chair to pitch. You see that, and you're like, this is what's changing their life," Fletcher told WBZ.

She admits that at times, she has her hands full. "They give it to me, and they know everything about me. They know my birthday, and they're like, we know when your birthday is and we know your last name. They know my favorite color, these kids, they pay attention, so I've gotta make sure I'm on point with them too. I remember who their favorite baseball player is, their favorite pumpkin pie or whatever for dessert. You've gotta keep up, because these kids are smart cookies."

Miracle League of Massachusetts was co-founded by Andy Richardt, whose 14-year-old son Henry began playing baseball at the age of 4.

"He has a diagnosis of Pitt-Hopkins, but it's, he's just Henry," Richardt said "He's still learning to walk and learning to talk and he likes baseball."

Richardt coaches the youngest players between the ages of 5 and 9 and, when asked what he enjoys most about his Saturdays, he pointed to the many volunteers.

"It's a thrill to me that now, when my son is out in the world, that there's that many more people that will appreciate him for who he is rather than oh, there's the kid in the wheelchair. I'm not sure how to approach. There's literally 250 people each season who come out and volunteer that now, I hope, will see Henry as a baseball player," he said.


A desire to share her love of horses was behind Sherrie Patron's initial decision to teach riding to children with special needs. Fifteen years later, the Greener Pastures therapeutic riding program at Flying Change Stables in Chelmsford offers much more.

Greener Pastures is a non-profit program that serves children and adults with disabilities, but mostly children. Students are given 45-minute lessons on either a riding trail or in a ring.

Patron sees improvement in many of her students in a very short period of time.

"Riding is just building skill on top of skill, right? Nobody gets on and gallops with a good end result. You get on and you walk and you learn your balance and you strengthen your core and you learn how to steer. I mean, think about it, you know, you're influencing sometimes a thousand pound animal," she explained.

Flying Change Stables in Chelmsford
The Flying Change Stables in Chelmsford. (Photo credit: Mary Blake - WBZ NewsRadio 1030)

Jolene Richard of Tyngsboro brings her two sons, 8-year-old Jordan and 12-year-old Josh to ride every Sunday. Josh took to it immediately.

"It's good," he said. Jolene sees a number of benefits. "There are a lot of balance issues and coordination and we still have some of those concerns, but they definitely have improved, and the confidence has improved for our children, and, just the horses have a calming effect on them. I don't know how else to describe that part," she said.

Rebecca Regal has been a Green Pastures volunteer since she was 13.

"It's really fun to be here just to be around the kids, they're really really good kids and the horses are amazing. It's just a nice place to be on a Sunday morning," she said.

Kathy McDermott is the owner of Flying Change Stables and vividly remembers a young rider who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4.

"There was nothing. She could physically walk, but she would not talk, she would not cry, she would not laugh. She was on the pony, about the second lesson, I was watching her, and she just did this little , just a tiny, tiny, tiniest, tiniest uplift of the corners of her mouth and it was nothing, and it still like makes me emotional, but it was nothing to anybody else, but I looked at her parents and that was everything," she told WBZ.


Learning to swim saves lives, and this is especially true for special needs children.

Swim Angelfish is an aquatic therapy program that focuses on getting these children into the water. The program is specifically designed for children with sensory issues, physical challenges and autism. The goal is to make them safe swimmers and as independent as possible.

Instructor Kristin Bolt has always loved to swim and sees it as the perfect environment for kids.

"When you're in the water you want to be working. It's not like you're sitting at a desk and the teacher's telling you do this, do this. You're in the water and you want to learn how to go under," she said.

Cindy Freedman, an occupational therapist who worked in the water as part of head injury rehab, co-founded Swim Angelfish.

"The overall aquatic mission is to decrease the statistic that drowning is the leading cause of death for children with autism in America. Globally we offer the training on line so that people train in our methodology," she told WBZ.

She gave an example of that methodology.

"I actually had a child that I didn't touch, and I just had them do the strategies and the mom was crying after ten minutes. I had him jump up and down. I had him look up and down. I had him turn his body around and waking up his body so that his skin could tolerate the underwater. So you can't fix underwater just by keep doing underwater. If you back up and implement strategies that help the body to tolerate the sensation of under, then we're finding success with submerging and taking a breath," she explained.

Alison's 9-year-old son Ted has been enrolled in Swim Angelfish for a year. Prior to his lessons, Ted had never been in a pool. Alison sees the experience as much more than learning how to swim.

"Obviously he's gaining confidence in the pool but when you have confidence in one area of your life you tend to have confidence in other areas as well," she said.

Swim Angelfish has programs in seven Massachusetts locations and two in New Hampshire.

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