Field of dreams: Buddy Baseball a home run for kids with special needs

The crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, the cheers from the crowd. Summer wouldn’t be complete without baseball. And while some kids take for granted the ability to run the bases or catch a pop fly, others don’t always have that opportunity due to physical limitations.

But thanks to the Wheaton Junior Woman’s Club, kids with special needs from across the suburbs can enjoy the thrill of the game, with a buddy to help them along the way.

The club started Buddy Baseball in 1991 with only a few players and volunteers. It has now grown exponentially, with 69 players and 75 buddies last year. Games this year will be held July 9, 16, 23, 30 and Aug. 6 at Briar Patch Park, 1700 Briarcliff Blvd., Wheaton. There are spots still available for both players and volunteers.

“Our program brings in players from all around the Western suburbs,” said Mariah Cericola, the club’s vice president, in an email.

Volunteers work with their buddy by running bases or pushing wheelchairs, fielding balls and hitting off a tee. Needless to say, volunteers get just as much out of it as the players, according to siblings Camille and Kennerly Kitt, who have volunteered for years.

“We started being ‘Buddies’ for Buddy Baseball when we were 8 years old. Our older brother had signed up to be the Buddy for our cousin, Justin, so we came along to watch. We were technically too young to be Buddies, but there was a shortage of Buddies that year, so we jumped in,” the siblings said in an email.

“Opening up your heart to those that are not exactly like you is something the world could use a lot more of, and Buddy Baseball is a perfect example. We can't wait to see old friends and new this summer on the field.”

John S. gets instructions on how to hit the ball off a tee during a previous Buddy Baseball game. Volunteers come out to help kids with special needs play baseball. That could entail pushing wheelchairs around bases, catching the ball or hitting. Courtesy of Wheaton Junior Woman's Club

The Wheaton Junior Woman’s Club pays for the program with various fundraisers throughout the year, including a mum sale coming up in July. Cericola says there are only 10 active members, but the ladies involved are willing to go the extra mile to make the program work.

And so are the volunteers who come out to help.

“It's just an awesome way for teens to give back to their community,” said Katherine Kratz, whose four kids have all participated in Buddy Baseball. “It builds compassion and understanding for kids with unique abilities. My four kids always came home from games in the happiest mood sharing stories about their Buddies.”

Cericola talks more about the Wheaton Junior Woman’s Club and Buddy Baseball.

Q: What is Buddy Baseball?

A: Buddy Baseball is a program organized and run by the Wheaton Junior Woman's Club, which started in 1949 and is part of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, a national organization. The club focuses its efforts on improving the community through fundraising, service, social opportunities and philanthropy.

Each year we have provided hundreds of hours of volunteer support to various local organizations. Through fundraising, we have been fortunate to donate tens of thousands of dollars to organizations in need, as well as local high school seniors in the form of scholarships.

Buddy Baseball, formerly known as Rising Stars Buddy Baseball, was started by the Wheaton Junior Woman's Club in 1991 with seven players and 11 buddies. In 2023, we welcomed 69 players and 75 buddies. This project encompasses what it means to do service work for the community, and is easily the most meaningful five weeks of the WJWC club calendar.

Buddy Baseball is a five-week baseball program for players with special needs, ages 5 and older, that utilizes the “buddy system” — children and young adults with special needs are paired with able-bodied buddies. Volunteer buddies are children of Wheaton Juniors, friends, and family of athletes at least 13 years of age. The camp includes scrimmage games, with an emphasis on baseball skills.

Q: How many people do you serve each year?

A: In 2023, we welcomed 69 players and 75 buddies for Buddy Baseball; however, our volunteer efforts reach beyond this program and serve countless other individuals. We are able to accomplish this program solely due to our membership of 10 dedicated women. Without these women, Buddy Baseball would not be a program for the local communities.

Nicco M. and his buddy volunteer Clay pose for a photo during a previous Buddy Baseball game in Wheaton. The program started in 1991 with seven players and last year had 69. Courtesy of the Wheaton Junior Woman's Club

Q: Where do the majority of your funds come from to support this program?

A: We fundraise all year for our Wheaton Junior Woman's Club Charity Fund Inc. We sell mums in the late summer/early fall, host a Pick 3 Lotto fundraiser in the fall, and our largest fundraiser is our annual trivia night, held the first Saturday in March. We also solicit sponsors to help us fund our efforts. Sponsors can get in touch with us through our email:

Q: What does volunteering for this program entail? How do people sign up?

A: Without our club and its members, Buddy Baseball would not run. We are always looking for new members who are interested in not only helping to organize the program, but to give back to our local community year round. Interested potential members can register at

If anyone is specifically interested in becoming a Buddy Volunteer, their role would entail being paired with a player and assisting in various ways so the player can play baseball. This sometimes means pushing a wheelchair, setting up a tee and ball, helping swing a bat or field a ball with their player. Interested Buddy Volunteers (or players) can register at

Q: Tell us about any fundraisers you have coming up.

A: We are selling mums starting in July through our website, We get our mums from We Grow Dreams, a local organization in West Chicago and big supporter of Buddy Baseball. This garden center provides job training and employment opportunities to people with disabilities.

We also hold our annual trivia night the first Saturday of March at the American Legion in Carol Stream. Tickets for this, too, can be accessed through our website starting in January. A recent fundraiser we held was our Golden Girls Pub Crawl in downtown Wheaton this past November. Members and guests dressed up (or not) and supported local restaurants while raising money for Buddy Baseball and our other charities.

Q: How can readers help your organization?

A: We are always looking for more members. We currently have 10 active members and are amazed at how much we accomplish. Last year we logged 740 volunteer hours collectively and donated nearly $10,000 to local and national charities. Our small but mighty club won several GFWC awards, including most recently a statewide first place for our efforts in the membership category.

Camille, left, Emilie, John and Kennerly are all smiles after a Buddy Baseball game. Camille and Kennerly say, “Opening up your heart to those that are not exactly like you is something the world could use a lot more of, and Buddy Baseball is a perfect example.” Courtesy of the Wheaton Junior Woman's Club

Q: What else would you like readers to know?

A: We are a diverse group of women in various stages of life, from first-time moms to recent empty-nesters. The common thread that connects us all is our desire to serve our community while also building new friendships.

We know there are many ways in which women in and around the community are being asked to serve. We feel that we are unique in our ability to reach far and wide through our connection with the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Having this nationwide network to lean on, learn from and share with is just part of what makes our club unique.

• • •

To sign up to play or volunteer for Buddy Baseball:

To join the Wheaton Junior Woman’s Club:

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