PORTSMOUTH — Ann-Marie Dincher fought back tears as she tried to explain what the Challenger League has meant to her 7-year-old son, Luke, and her family.
“We started this program when he turned 5,” said Ms. Dincher, the coach of the GSV Challenger team from Jersey Shore, Penn., which traveled to the annual Challenger Jamboree Sunday at Glen Park. “Honestly I think I give a lot to my son Luke, because without him we wouldn’t have the team. It gives everybody a chance to play baseball.”
And that’s what the Challenger League, a Little League division for kids with developmental disabilities, is all about.
On Sunday, the Portsmouth Challenger League hosted its eighth annual Challenger Jamboree at the park, an event that drew more than 1,000 people and 22 teams from Rhode Island and beyond.
Everything from the food, face-painting, moon walk, touch-a-truck, dunk tank, visits from various mascots and more was offered up free of charge so that families could enjoy a stress-free day of watching their children have fun on the field. The Fire Department even brought a pumper truck that sprayed a stream of water in the air to keep kids cool.
“It’s honestly the most amazing thing we’ve been a part of so far,” said Ms. Dincher, who’s team is straight from Little League International. “We got invited last year and we couldn’t make it out and I just said, ‘Don’t forget us,’ and they invited us back out this year.”
She said the Jamboree organizers showered the visiting teams with hospitality.
“Last night was awesome. We had a beach luau party with barbecue chicken, pizza, ribs, New England clam chowder. They were great,” she said.
For Bob Dyl, who started the local Challenger League, the Jamboree is a hectic day in which so many things could go wrong if his regular group of volunteers didn’t attend to every detail.
“I’m always constantly pacing back and forth all the time, but it looks like it’s going smoothly and everyone’s having a great time,” he said Sunday. “The volunteers are incredible as usual; they got it down so good.”
Mr. Dyl’s wife, Vicki, said as usual, all the food was donated by local businesses.
“We’ve got 850 hamburgers, 750 hot dogs, I’m going to say about 60 pizzas. We’ve got 42 cases of water, 240 (cases) each of Coke, Diet Coke and Sprite, plus popcorn, 960 bags of chips and about 15 or 20 watermelons,” Ms. Dyl said.
The day began with opening ceremonies that featured the Providence Police Department’s Pipes and Drums Corp. leading players in a parade to the main field. That was followed by a free players-only raffle, which handed out everything from baseballs signed by members of the Boston Red Sox to a basketball signed by the Boston Celtics.
Portsmouth Challenger player Ryan Costa even donated one of the raffle items — a mini helmet signed by New England Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. (Mr. Dyl, who was leading the ceremony, passed the mic over to Ryan for the correct pronunciation.)
For Cliff Baron, coach of the Smithfield Challenger team, the Jamboree is the highlight of the year for his players.
“We’ve been doing this almost every year we’ve been playing and it gives us a chance to see everybody else,” said Mr. Baron. “It’s just great camaraderie. The kids love all the different rides and the parade and the mascots. They always have fun and it’s always a great time.”
Senior Division coming
The Challenger League has traditionally been open to mentally and physically challenged players ages 5 to 18, but next year older players will have a chance to compete as well.
“Little League passed a ruling saying that they’re starting a brand-new division, the Challenger Senior Division, for anyone 18 or older,” said Mr. Dyl, who plans on running the new league next year.