“There’s no crying in baseball,” unless you are watching the Pipers Pals team play. Then there are sure to be happy tears from all the families and friends in the stands. Pipers Pals is a Burbank baseball team for special needs children ages 5-18 years old that has given the players a chance to get out on the field, have fun and make some lasting friendships.
Tiffany and Duane Nelson met while volunteer coaching a youth softball team and were excited to one day coach a team for their daughter. When Piper was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, they thought their dream of coaching would never come to fruition. Surgeons told them Piper would never walk or talk and never live past the age of 10. The Nelson’s wanted to try everything they could for their little girl and took Piper when she was three years old to Poland to try the Adeli suit treatment and she was walking in just three weeks.
Piper is now 20 years old and has two younger brothers, Barrett, 14, and Cannon, 11. “We were sitting at dinner as a family and our youngest son asked why his sister, Piper, can’t play baseball. He got emotional after seeing some kids stare at her and mimic her at the mall that day,” said Tiffany Nelson. It was then that her son realized that his sister would never ride a bike, skateboard, drive, or get married. “His older brother tried to calm him down and said we could start a team for special needs kids like sissy. So we talked it through and made it happen,” added Nelson.
The Nelsons approached the Burbank sports office and got Pipers Pals going. The team now has 13 pals including Piper and consists of children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, spina bifida, and mitochondrial dysfunction. Anyone is welcome to join and they worked to build up their players by getting the word out through the sports office and through aides at Burbank schools.
Piper’s Pals works on a buddy system, where a Burbank 14-and-under team, called Wolfpack, pairs their players with the pals and guides them through a real game. “The idea is that the parents step back (very hard to do) and their peers teach, protect, keep them engaged and help them to complete a game against other able-bodied teams willing to play against us,” said Nelson.
The Wolfpack kids use easy to understand terminology to help the pals through the game like “use the diamond sword to hit the creeper” a Minecraft reference, or dress up like Cinderella, which helps Pal, Reina, get to the base by skipping like a princess. Tiffany, Duane, and James (a Wolfpack player), have all dressed up in Cinderella costumes thanks to a donation from a mom on Facebook. The costume get Reina excited and moving from base to base. Every game is filled with tears of joy, laughs, and of course dancing and singing in the outfield.
The Wolfpack team, which includes Nelson’s sons, Barrett and Cannon, have learned to interact with the Piper’s Pals players by guiding them gently and waiting patiently for their responses. Tiffany makes sure everyone exudes inclusion and compassion and she speaks to the opposing team before the game to open their hearts and minds to the Pals so they understand some of the struggles that come with their special needs. “These kids attend regular schools and are seen by their peers, but are not really ‘seen.’ We make sure they introduce themselves when they get to a base and explain the importance of saying hi to the Pals,” said Nelson.
While many of the Special Needs programs are in bungalows or other classrooms, many kids don’t know how to approach or talk to their neurologically diverse peers. Tiffany teaches players how to give her Pals fist bumps and to say “Hi, my name is…” and to wait for a response for 10-15 seconds before continuing on. She teaches them patience and understanding and polite replies like “It’s nice to meet you,” or “I am glad to play with you today.” “These kids matter, on and off the field,” adds Nelson. “We know what it’s like to watch our daughter suffer daily, but maybe she was brought to us so we could open the eyes of so many whose hearts were closed until they met Piper.”
Pipers Pals have their final game this Saturday, June 18th, and then their Jamboree the following Saturday before the season wraps up.