West Hartford local Gabriel Dell enjoys playing ball at the Miracle League field.

Miracle League of Connecticut Executive Director Mike Michaud spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about how a mission to make baseball accessible to children with special needs evolved into an organization that provides many opportunities for Connecticut children with physical and cognitive challenges.

NAN PRICE: Give us a little background about how Miracle League of Connecticut began.

MICHAEL MICHAUD: In 2006, the town of West Hartford received a $1 million state grant to work on the site that is now the Little League complex on corner of Trout Brook Drive and Asylum Avenue. I was president of the Little League at the time, so I was on the committee.

I had seen a story about the first Miracle League field that was built in Conyers, GA in 2000. And, it dawned on me: That undersized plot of land would be the perfect spot for a Miracle League field.

So, the Miracle League field was drawn into the plans, but we didn’t have the funding to build it. The land sat empty for a couple of years.

Around 2008/2009, as I was leaving my term as Little League president, I got together with West Hartford residents Scott Franklin and Ronit Shoham, who are also very involved with Little League and ran the Challenger Division. I said: Let’s start raising funds to build a Miracle League field.

It was a daunting experience. We had never taken on anything that big. We had a $550,000 to $600,000 budget for the field and the playground.

NAN: How did you get started?

MICHAEL: Shortly after we registered with the national Miracle League Organization, I connected with Ted Crew. He’s CEO of Great American Donut, which owns more than 50 Dunkin Donut stores in the Hartford area. They came on board to help us start fundraising.

We started small and did a lot of grant writing. One of our Challenger Division players raised about $15,000 as his mitzvah project. Another local group that runs an annual marathon softball game wanted to find a charity to honor a member who had passed. They ended up donating $50,000.

The first Connecticut Miracle League complex is located on corner of Trout Brook Drive and Asylum Avenue in West Hartford, CT.

And then, in 2012, we hit finally our goal. It was amazing how the Greater Hartford community supported us. Our first year, we had about 20 kids and it’s grown every year. Last spring season we had 124 kids from 42 different towns.

NAN: As a business, how do you create a revenue stream?

MICHAEL: We’ve been fundraising all along. And we charge a registration fee for most of our programs. But our mission is to remove barriers from kids taking part in activities, so if finances are a barrier, we always offer a fee waiver.

We’ve also created revenue through grant writing, and we solicit sponsors for some of our programs from the local business community. We do an annual golf tournament the first Tuesday of June, the Miracle League of Connecticut Golf Classic, which brings in the bulk of our fundraising for the year. We’re always looking for more sponsors and golfers.

NAN: Let’s talk a little more about the evolution. Your initial mission was to build the field—but a lot of programming has been added since.

MICHAEL: Right. Our original intention was just to build a field. We had no inclination of doing more. But as we engaged with families, we saw they were so appreciative of this opportunity. There just aren’t a lot of opportunities out there for recreational non-competitive activities for children with special needs.

We realized we could be doing so much more. Our next project was to offer adaptive swim lessons. And then the town of West Hartford asked if we would take over the iCan Bike program. The mission fit right in with ours, so we said yes and that became our next big program.

We also started working with Chapter 126, an adaptive sports and fitness Oak Hill Center in Bristol that’s designed specifically for folks with disabilities. Now we’re able to offer an indoor adaptive gym experience during the winter. The experience at Chapter 126 was so great, we entered into a formal three-year collaboration agreement that’s working well for both organizations.

This past year we started Everybody Dance Now, an adaptive dance program. We expected about 15 people to register and 45 signed up. So now we offer that program in two locations, West Hartford and East Lyme. And we’re talking to some folks at Yale to offer it in New Haven.

We also started hosting Parents’ Only Night events, which give parents a chance to socialize and get to know each other. Along those lines, last year we started Sibshops, a program for the siblings of children with special needs.

Some other accomplishments include becoming a sensory-friendly sponsor for the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, which now offer several sensory-friendly days per year. At the last one, which took place January 27, 1,400 people showed up.

We also sponsor the Theatre for Young Audience series at the Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. They provide sensory-friendly performances of kids’ shows, which brings in a few hundred kids every year.

Eventually, with the way we were growing and broadening our programming, we knew it was time to hire a full-time executive director. I was honored the Board asked me to take on the job. We also formed an executive committee, in which Scott became our Secretary and Ronit was named Vice President. They have played an integral part in forming the organization.

NAN: What’s next?

MICHAEL: We’ve set a goal to build four or five additional Miracle League fields in Connecticut. Because kids from Southeastern Connecticut shouldn’t have to travel more than an hour to play a game of baseball. We’ve been working with a group from East Lyme and they’re more than halfway to their fundraising goal.

We’re always looking for new opportunities that will attract the kids and might not be easy for them to do in an integrated or inclusive setting. I think the niche we found is a low-commitment, non-competitive, purely social atmosphere. It’s about the kids being part of a team, getting to know each other, and having fun.

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