SOUTH PLAINFIELD - South Plainfield’s Firefighters and Policemen teamed up to play the town’s newly formed Buddy Ball Baseball Team on the evening of Monday, June 10th, at the Police Athletic League (P.A.L.), located at 1250 Maple Avenue. After the game, players were treated to pizza and chicken fingers to celebrate the successful season.
“The Buddy Ball Team was phenomenal,” said Police Sergeant Gary Cassio, Head Coach of the South Plainfield High School Varsity Football Team. “I’m involved with high school sports and it gets very competitive, but seeing these kids have fun and enjoy the game, makes you remember that the point of the game is to have fun. And these kids had so much fun.”
Police officers and firefighters came out in force for the game. After weeks of practice and games, the Buddy Ball team was ready for their opponents.
“I am so extremely proud of this community,” said Councilwoman Christine Faustini. “Watching the SPPD and the SPVFD step up with such a high level of enthusiasm speaks volumes about the values of our town. Their involvement made the game an extra special experience for our Buddy Ball team.”
“We loved playing baseball with the kids,” said Fire Chief Thomas Scalera. “My guys had a blast just going out, getting some exercise and watching the kids have fun. To be able to be out in the community and to help in whatever way we can out there as a Fire Department is important to us. The experience was great.”
Each Buddy Ball player took turns up at the plate to hit the ball and had their turn in the field.
“The kids really enjoyed it and had a blast playing against the firemen and police,” said Head Buddy Ball Coach Alyssa Errico, who is a Special Education Teacher at Franklin. “The firemen and police officers did a really great job with team work and showing them that it’s good to have fun and it’s not about winning. I think it went really well.”
“The game between the firefighters and our team was so heartwarming,” said Julianne Ferrara, Buddy. “The firemen had such great personalities and made the game enjoyable for our team. The kids were smiling and laughing the whole time. They were cheering for their teammates and just enjoying themselves.”
The bleachers were filled with parents and supporters, who cheered on the teams.
“I love the fact that the township employees came to spend time with the children and play against them very kindly as the bad news bears,” said Alexandra Gonzalez, whose daughter, Maggie, was a Buddy. “I thought it was fantastic that everybody has an opportunity to play, to be included, to be supported, to be cheered on, and to be made feel special.”
Buddy Ball is sponsored by the South Plainfield Recreation Department as a free program open to all special needs children living in South Plainfield ages five years old and up. The goal of the Buddy Ball Program is to provide sports opportunities for the physically and developmentally challenged youth of the community.
“The season went really well,” said Errico. “Since it’s the first year we had the Buddy Ball baseball program, we used this year as a ‘trial’ to see how the students would enjoy it. Overall, the students really loved it. They had a great time each week and usually when the hour was up they wanted to continue playing!”
Led by special needs teachers and professionals, the Buddy Ball program teaches team members how to play sports in a way that each individual child can understand, catering to the unique needs of the players.
“They kids are so loving and compassionate for the sport and each other,” said Assistant Coach Kelly Gamaro Preschool, Special Education at Franklin. “They’re so willing to cheer each other on. It’s something they can do without being judged.”
“I love the kids,” said Errico. “Special needs is my life. I love teaching kids with disabilities.”
Buddies are an essential part of the program. Those ages twelve years old and up can volunteer to be buddies. Part of the experience of Buddy Ball is to provide opportunities for general education students in town to get to know children with special needs. The experience benefits everyone involved.
“A lot of general education kids do not fully understand kids with disabilities, especially if they were never taught so in the beginning,” said Errico. “Many of the buddies did not know what they were getting themselves into, but I think they realized that the kids are just like them, but a little bit different. The Buddies loved playing with the kids. They loved helping them. I think they did a really great job and I’m very thankful for them.”
The skills the children had learned over the season were evident during the game against South Plainfield’s finest.
“It was amazing,” said Cassio. “The kids knew the game and their skill level, the way they hit the ball and their running showed they knew the game. They just had fun and they were kids.”
Many parents find the program a welcome addition to the recreation department. Being able to watch their special needs child participate in a team sport, where they are learning new skills, building friendships and having fun, is something many parents never thought they would be able to experience.
“I really like this program,” said Vandana Kumar, parent of a child on the team. “Any support we can get is welcome. These kinds of interactive activities encourage kids to do something out of the box. They do studies in the school, but doing things like this really makes a difference in their lives.”
“My daughter was a Buddy and she likes to feel needed and help others,” said Gonzalez. “There was a little girl who clung to her for her own reasons and luckily that’s the kind of child that Maggie gravitates to, so I thought it was wonderful that they just partnered up on their own. It met the needs of both.”
“This was a very enjoyable experience for players, volunteers and parents,” said Heather Olson, parent of a Buddy Ball player. “There’s no pressure, just fun!”
The game between the first responders and the children served another purpose aside from the fun of the game.
“It’s important for the kids to meet the firemen and police officers, so this way they’re not just associating them with getting in trouble or something bad,” said Errico. “It’s a good way for them to learn that police and firemen can be your friends as well so this way they have a better relationship with them.”
“When first responders spend time with our children, it teaches them that they are important and appreciated for exactly who they are,” said Faustini. “And the game was so much fun that everyone, the players, volunteers, coaches, parents and spectators all left with a smile!”
"We try to involve ourselves with as many of the community projects as we can,” said Fire Deputy Larry DelNegro. “We’ve done several things with different children, different groups before and it’s always good to see the children. They enjoy it. They liked the game, had a ball, they had a great time.”
Errico says she is dedicated to making Buddy Ball a success in South Plainfield and will continue to allow it to grow.
“I plan on continuing the program for years to come,” said Errico. “I am going to try and set up other sports for the fall / winter seasons (basketball & hopefully something for the fall). I also plan on running the Buddy Ball Basketball Program this year because I heard it was a huge hit. My overall goal is to have a sport for each season, so the students are always looking forward to something.”
The game ended with each child lining up to commend their opponents on a good game.
“The firemen and police officers made sure to hive five our whole team at the end of the game and tell them they did a great job, which put smiles on every child's face,” said Ferrara.
“This is what South Plainfield’s about,” said Cassio. “It’s about community. This was a really good night.”
The Buddy Ball Spring season concluded on the evening of Monday, June 17th. Each child was given a trophy for their accomplishments. More Buddy Ball sport programs are in the works and will be announced in the coming weeks.