EAST LYME — Melanie Barber loves music, and she sings and dances all day long when she can, her mother Pam said.
But after graduating high school, there weren’t many organized dance programs for Melanie to join. That changed two years ago, when the Miracle League of Southeastern Connecticut started Everybody Dance Now, an adaptive dance program made for people with disabilities.
Melanie, 32 and living with Down syndrome, joined the classes at Studio 22 in East Lyme, where volunteer instructors paired up with participants with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities, and danced.
“She loved the dance classes,” Pam Barber said. “The dance instructors were these lovely young women, some of whom had never worked with people with special needs, and they loved it – they cried at the end when the session was over.”
Each participant had their own instructor to work with, so their experiences were all unique and geared toward making sure each person got the most out of their time. Melanie worked on a routine, and a couple of participants laid on the floor and enjoyed the music – whatever worked for them – Barber said.
The dance program was the first by the Miracle League of Southeastern Connecticut, a chapter of a national organization that supports adaptive sports – sports for people with disabilities.
“I think to me, the key to Miracle League is that there is not an age limit – it’s not just for kids,” Pam Barber said. “That to us as a family is important, that she’s 32 but she can still find athletic programs that she can participate in.”
The Miracle League raised more than half a million dollars – all in private donations – to build a turf baseball and soccer field behind Flanders Elementary School in East Lyme, which was completed last June.
The field is designed to be accessible to people with physical disabilities. The entire surface is artificial turf, including the infield “dirt,” which is a red-colored turf. The entrance to the field has a specially designed lip so people in wheelchairs or with walkers can move easily from the concrete sidewalk to the slightly-raised turf field.
“Kids that are in wheelchairs sometimes on a typical Little League field would have trouble with the dirt and the grass and the infield material and all that stuff,” said Dave Putnam, the Miracle League of Southeastern Connecticut executive director and director of East Lyme Parks and Recreation. “Now that the field is accessible, they can come and play, which is great to have in our community.”
With the new field, Miracle League started expanding its programs. Dance moved outdoors onto the field last fall, and it also hosted its first season of soccer, which had 34 people participating, Putnam said.
This spring, Miracle League is adding two more programs – its first seasons of baseball and lacrosse. Putnam said there are 40 people registered for the baseball season, half of them from East Lyme, and the other half coming from anywhere from Madison to North Stonington to Preston.
“We’re covering a pretty big geographical area,” Putnam said. “That was our focus and our intent when we built the field, we wanted it to be a regional complex.”
Jen VanDusen, whose son Colby is a junior in high school who has Down syndrome, said there haven’t been a lot of activities in southeastern Connecticut for children with disabilities without having to travel. The Miracle League programs and a basketball program Putnam ran before are some of the few activities Colby has gravitated towards.
“It seemed difficult to find activities, and this is such an easy thing to do and it’s part of our community,” VanDusen said.
Colby loves basketball, and was disappointed that he wasn’t able to play this year because of COVID. He was able to play soccer in the fall and is going to play baseball when that league starts on April 25.
Jen VanDusen’s other children are also active in sports, and Colby always goes to watch their games with his grandparents and other family. He gets excited to have people coming to watch him now that he’s playing sports, she said.
“It’s a non-judgement zone, and it’s very positive, always,” VanDusen said. “No one worries about who’s doing better, who struck out, who didn’t score a goal – everybody wins and they know it.”
Melanie Barber has loved her experience, too, her mother said. She is also going to be playing baseball this spring, which Putnam said will include a mix of learning and practicing skills and playing games.
“Getting her out, moving around, interacting with other people, interacting with the coaches puts a smile on her face,” Barber said. “And she’s a very happy person to begin with. It widens her world, it gives her more people during the week to interact with, in an activity that she enjoys.”
Putnam said the goal is to have one volunteer for every participant, so everyone has someone to work with. The lacrosse program is mostly going to be a skills clinic, he said. Putnam has some sticks available to use, and the Miracle League program doesn’t require the sport’s other expensive pads and gear.
Even after adding four new programs in a year, Miracle League isn’t done growing. The adaptive field was just phase one of a three-phase plan to redevelop the area behind Flanders Elementary into an accessible complex.
The next phase is to replace the playground next to the field with an accessible playground, putting in a rubberized surface to replace the wood chips. After that the Miracle League plans to build an accessible restaurant facility.
Putnam said they hope to raise about another half a million dollars for those projects in the coming years, but for now he’s excited for the Miracle League’s first season of spring sports.
“All you’ve gotta do is come once and see the kids’ smiles and the joy they have to play,” he said.