Garry Berger has always loved sports, and, like many parents, longed for the day he could share this joy with his child. “One of the fun things I was looking forward to was to play sports and coach the teams,” Berger says. But when his first son Max was born, Berger felt as if life had thrown him a curve ball. Max is autistic.
Searching for ways to deal with the new direction his life had taken, Berger came across “Welcome to Holland,” an essay that resonates strongly with him. “It’s perfect. It’s exactly what it’s like,” he says of author Emily Perl Kingsley’s moving analogy in which she likens the experience of welcoming a special-needs child into the world to a rerouted plane flight.
“It’s like planning a fabulous trip to Italy, but there’s been a change in the flight plan,” Kingsley writes. “They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay. It is slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and catch your breath, you look around and begin to notice that Holland has windmills. Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.”
In 2004 when Max was five years old, Berger recalls, “I saw Max’s peers starting to sign up for activities, especially sports like soccer, T-ball, and there weren’t any real options for a child with autism.” It was then that Berger took it upon himself to build a sports program for children with special needs. Fittingly, he named the league “Holland.”
Holland began with a small soccer team under the umbrella of the Soccer Club of Ridgefield, but the program quickly grew to include teams in basketball, baseball, and, most recently, tennis.
In Holland’s early days, Berger coached all the teams. Today, a group of dedicated Ridgefield volunteers coach and organize Holland’s soccer and basketball league, allowing Berger to focus on sharing his love of baseball with his son and 16 other enthusiastic players, ages five to 16. “Baseball is my real passion,” admits Berger.
With overwhelming support from Ridgefield’s baseball community, the Holland baseball league has flourished. “I got such an enthusiastic response from the Ridgefield Little League—Joe Walsh, Dave Scott, and all the people on the board,” Berger says. “Bruce Yuen helped us get out there and play other teams. That was a big step and made a huge difference for us.”
Holland has a full roster of players and a schedule that includes eight Sunday games in spring. During the one-and-a-half-hour, two-to-three-inning game, each team member, most of whom are from Fairfield County, gets up to bat. “There are no outs and everyone gets on base,” says Berger.
According to Berger, the games wouldn’t be possible without the help of 50 Ridgefield High School baseball players who act as “buddies” during each game. RHS Head Baseball Coach Tony Wilmot told Berger that as long as he was head coach of the teams, the varsity and JV boys on the baseball teams would be part of this program. “We have kids in wheelchairs with very limited movement and kids who can’t move their hands, so the buddy helps them hold the bat and they feel like they are swinging,” explains Berger.
There is no fee to enroll a child in the program, and, thanks to a gift from the Molly Tango Foundation, each player receives a professional-looking uniform with the player’s name on the back, and each high-school volunteer wears a shirt inscribed “Ridgefield Little League Buddy.” Also sporting a uniform and “doggles”—dog goggles—is four-legged mascot Dozer, an attendant guided by master Jane Turner at nearly every game.
Players and buddies are not the only ones who have found joy through this remarkable baseball league. Camaraderie between parents is something that makes Berger’s heart sing. “They get to meet people they wouldn’t have otherwise met because they’re in Holland for the day,” says Berger.
*This article appeared in Ridgefield Magazine.
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