Imagine you're the parent of a child with a disability. Daily, you are concerned with how he is managing in school, how his health is, and you are always hoping for him to meet some friends and make some memories.
Now imagine how you would feel walking into the Challenger Baseball program for the first time. You have your doubts about whether this will be a success and whether your son will fit in.
Then you meet Coach Murphy, a tall, gray-haired, green-eyed man with a smile and a welcoming spirit. You immediately know you have come to the right place.
Francis Murphy has been working with the Civitan Challenger Baseball program for 25 years. He came on as a "buddy;" someone who works with the players to help them hit the ball, run the bases and generally keep them safe. As time went on, and other coaches moved away, Murphy continued to stay with the program, and now he is looked at as the 'granddaddy' of the whole show.
What has helped to keep Murphy with the program is he sees how the children respond every season.
"To me, it gives a kid a chance to play baseball," he said.
One of his favorite stories to tell is that of one family’s perseverance. A girl came to the program not speaking and cried quite a bit during the games. Her parents stuck with it and "as time went on, she stopped crying," Murphy said.
"One day, she came up to me and said, 'Hi Coach.'" It’s a simple phrase that he’ll never forget that.
Murphy is a sportsman, for sure. He’s coached regular baseball, basketball and even refereed for soccer. But, in addition to his love for sport, Murphy has personal motivation for staying with the Challenger team: his granddaughter with special needs. Although she lives out of state now, she spent a full season on his team.
Whether it’s his granddaughter rounding the bases or another child, parents recognize his love for children and keep coming back year after year.
At the recent end of season picnic, moms and dads wanted to talk about Murphy. John and Elizabeth Ventrilli started bringing their then 8 year-old son Matt out to play in 1999.
"The first couple of years, it was a little shaky," John Ventrilli said. "But the more he did it, the more he got to know the kids, the easier it was." Matt, who has Fragile X Syndrome, is now 21 and still plays with the team.
Following little league rules, any child is allowed to play up to the age of 22 years as long as he or she is enrolled in school. And, of course, any disability is accepted.
"They're here to play," Murphy said. "I am not going to restrict."
"He is very patient," John Ventrilli said of Murphy. "He's so good with the kids. He gets them to do things that they wouldn't normally do."
Matthew Pepe, 6, comes to the Challenger program to play ball from his wheelchair.
"The program has benefitted Matty," his mom, Kari Gracie, said. "He's really happy when he is on the ball field. This year he started hitting the ball with my help," she added.
Gracie said Murphy has gone above and beyond, even calling to check on Matty after he had a hip surgery. "He's been very welcoming, whatever you feel like you need, he says, 'Just let me know.' "
As Murphy passed out trophies and photos recently to each player to commemorate their hard work and growth during the season, the devotion to and affection for all the kids was apparent.
"I want to have kids who normally could not play baseball, play," he said. Aside from that, he just likes being around the kids. "I enjoy these kids, I love these kids," he said.
For more information on Challenger Baseball or to become a buddy to a player next season, contact Melissa Mascola at email@example.com.